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Meriam Ibrahim and the Obama Administration

Nina Shea

The heads of the European Union’s major institutions this week urged Sudan to free Meriam Ibrahim, the Christian woman who faces hanging for allegedly apostatizing from Islam.

A leader of Reform Judaism in the U.S. joined an interfaith group in protesting to the Sudanese Embassy against what is a pretty clear-cut violation of religious liberty.

NGOs and Sudanese groups are planning protests in front of the White House and the Sudan Embassy in Washington later this week.

And, as Ibrahim looks toward an appeals court review of her case, President Obama and the U.S. State department have been silent about it.

Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, has been an international human rights lawyer for over 30 years. She served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2012. She has assisted both the United Nations and the Clinton Administration in the field of human rights.

Aleteia on Tuesday asked Shea for her perspective on the Ibrahim case.

What do we know about this case? Is it in fact the case that Meriam Ibrahim is facing the death penalty because she turned her back on Islam and became a Christian?

That was the court finding: Because her father was Muslim, she was born Muslim and must remain Muslim, and because she practices Christianity and has embraced Christianity, she had turned her back on Islam.

Her defense is that she was abandoned by her father and was raised by her Orthodox Christian mother, who is from Ethiopia, and that she has only practiced Christianity her whole life and that she wants to be a Christian. She declined an offer from the court to renounce her Christianity and spare her life.

How is it that a country in the 21st Century has such a law?

The fact that she was sentenced to death for this law is very unusual, even in today’s world. It’s rules you are seeing applied by al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Boko Haram, the most extreme militant groups. … Apostasy from Islam is a death penalty offense in a number of countries, like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan or even Iran, but they are not applied. The governments find ways to get around it. Pakistan has a law against blasphemy, which is a related crime, and they sentence Christians and others to death for blasphemy against Islam. There’s a Christian woman named Asia Bibi who’s been on death row for many years. She was arrested in 2009. But the government doesn’t carry it out. That doesn’t mean they’re not killed. They’re killed by mobs or fanatics or extremists or militant groups in society.

This to me is a very terrifying sign that there is a new norm being established in the Muslim world being led by these extremist militant groups like al Qaeda, and now being picked up by a government that’s a member of the UN, namely Sudan, which we even have diplomatic relations with. It’s just astonishing to me that the U.S. government at any high level has not issued a statement on Meriam’s case. Today the State Department issued a joint statement with the UK and Norway on Sudan and did not mention Meriam’s case.

How is the rest of the world responding? What can and should be done?

I think there have to be protests at the very highest level, making it clear that this is unacceptable in the civilized world, in the world of international law, where Sudan is a member of different international banking arrangements and at the UN, that this is unacceptable, whether or not she ever was a Muslim, this is a flagrant denial of her religious freedom. The United States has always historically stood up for those issues, has been a proud proponent of religious freedom around the world. President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast this year said this is one of the pillars of our international policy, but when it comes to application we’re silent.

What is happening?

There are a number of protests being planned by NGOs and Sudanese groups this week in front of the White House, on Thursday and Friday at noon and in front of the Sudan Embassy. At the daily press briefings in the State Department there have been a number of questions asked over several days about Meriam’s case.

The other really compelling factor of why the U.S. should be involved at all is that her husband is a U.S. citizen, and therefore her children are U.S. citizens. The children are in prison with her. The U.S., under the Immigration Act, has an option to confer political asylum on even non-citizens, even if they are not in the United States, on humanitarian grounds. So they Secretary of Homeland Security has the discretion to do that, and he hasn’t.

We’ll see what happens when her case goes to the appeals court.

There was a similar case back in the Bush Administration where someone named Abdul Rahman was accused of apostasy. He had become a Christian while he was a refugee outside the country for many years. He refused to recant his Christianity, so they sentenced him to death. And the State Department said the same thing: “We’re going to see how the process plays out.” Then a number of Christian leaders here called for a protest. Chuck Colson was leading it. Before we knew it Abdul Rahman was on a plane being spirited out of there.

So the U.S. has a lot of influence on other countries. We have a lot of sanctions on Sudan, so maybe we can be working behind the scenes, but there’s no evidence that we are. We are passively watching.

In Sudan, under the Sharia Courts, once they are sentenced they can get executed right away. They can be ushered right from the courtroom to the firing squad, or in Meriam’s case, right to the gallows. So there’s no time to waste.

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