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Sudanese Christian freed from prison, death sentence annulled

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WASHINGTON (BP) — A Sudanese appeals court has rescinded the death sentence of a Christian woman who refused to renounce her faith and has freed her two small children and her from prison.

Meriam Yahia Ibrahim, 27, gained her freedom Monday (June 23) after the court overturned rulings issued by a Khartoum judge, Bloomberg News reported. Ibrahim, whose conviction and death sentence were greeted by international protests, was convicted under Sharia law for “apostasy” (leaving Islam) and sentenced to death by hanging. She also received a sentence of 100 lashes for adultery on the basis of her marriage to a Christian, Daniel Wani, a South Sudanese-born citizen of the United States.

Ibrahim gave birth to the couple’s second child, a daughter, Maya, May 27 in the Omdurman Federal Prison for Women in Khartoum. Martin, their 20-month-old son, had been imprisoned with his mother since February.

Ibrahim and Wani were together after her release, one of her lawyers said. Elshareef Ali told Bloomberg from Khartoum the appeals court ruling was a victory “for freedom of faith in Sudan.”

“The court canceled all the decisions taken against her…. She is now free to go anywhere,” he said.

Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., an advocate for Ibrahim’s release, had an idea where she should go. “This is a huge first step,” said Smith, who discussed Ibrahim’s case June 20 with Sudan’s ambassador to the United States. “But the second step is that Ms. Ibrahim and her husband and their children be on a plane and heading to the United States.”

The Southern Baptist Convention’s lead religious freedom advocate commended Ibrahim’s release and her testimony.

“I am grateful to God for this welcome news,” Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said. “In her faithfulness, Meriam has been a living picture of Jesus keeping his promise that he would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. Meriam is exactly what the Apostle Peter called a daughter of Sarah, one who does not fear that which is frightening. We can all learn from her example, to hold fast to the testimony of Jesus, whatever the cost.

“While we rejoice in her release,” he said in a statement for Baptist Press, “let’s remember that many others of our brothers and sisters around the world are being jailed and exiled and tortured for the sake of the gospel.”

Moore was among those who protested Ibrahim’s sentence and imprisonment. He called on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a May 20 letter to condemn the sentence as “cruel and inhumane, to demand her release, and to use the diplomatic influence of the State Department to advocate for this most fundamental human right, the freedom of religion and belief.”

Moore told Kerry in his letter, “The use of state power to enforce belief of any religion — Islam, Christianity or otherwise — is outside the authority of any government. That such an arrangement culminates in the arrest, torture, and execution of an otherwise law-abiding pregnant woman is abhorrent and should be condemned outrightly by the leadership of the United States government.”

Congress proved more assertive in denouncing the death sentence than did the Obama administration, however. The Senate approved without dissent a resolution that not only condemned the sentence but urged the U.S. government to refuse to normalize relations with or lift sanctions against Sudan until the Eastern African country abides by “international standards of freedom of religion or belief.” A bipartisan group of nearly 40 members of the House of Representatives wrote Kerry June 19 to urge more diligence by the administration in the case.

Khartoum judge Abaas Al Khalifa affirmed Ibrahim’s death sentence May 15 after giving her 15 days from his original decision to recant her Christian confession. According to Morning Star News, Ibrahim told Al Khalifa in court, “I am a Christian, and I have never been a Muslim.”

Ibrahim was born to a Sudanese Muslim father and an Ethiopian Orthodox mother, but her father disappeared from her life when she was 6 years old. Though her mother reared her as a Christian, Islamic law asserts she is Muslim by birth because her father was Muslim.

Al Khalifa instituted the sentence of 100 lashes for adultery because Sharia law considers marriage to a Christian illegal. Authorities reportedly had planned to carry out the whipping, then the execution, after Ibrahim nursed her daughter to age 2.

Ibrahim’s death sentence was the latest evidence of Sudan’s standing as one of the world’s worst violators of religious liberty. The State Department has listed the militant Islamic regime among its “countries of particular concern” (CPC) since 1999, the first year such designations were made by the U.S. government. Only eight countries are on the State Department’s CPC list, which is reserved for governments with the most severely repressive policies toward religious freedom.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. Baptist Press reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).