What is it like for a woman in labor to be shackled in a prison cell as her body struggles to bring forth new life?
Meriam Ibrahim, a 27-year-old Sudanese Christian convert, knows precisely what that experience is like, because she lived through it. On May 27, she reportedly gave birth to a daughter while chained to the floor of a Sudanese prison, following her conviction on charges of apostasy from Islam.
Her offense? She had become a Christian and then married a Christian. Ibrahim was offered a reprieve if she returned to the Muslim faith of her father, and she refused. Under shariah (Islamic law), her sentence was brutal and designed to discourage similar behavior: 100 lashes and death by hanging.
Fortunately, strong protests from the United Nations, human-rights groups and some world leaders prompted Sudanese authorities to release the mother of two. But her future is unclear, as she was re-arrested after she attempted to leave Sudan for the United States with her two children and husband, a naturalized U.S. citizen. She has since been released, but Sudanese authorities said she cannot leave the country.
The case of Meriam Ibrahim has drawn international attention and protests, but there are many other Christian women facing enormous challenges as they stay true to their faith in countries where Christians are treated as second-class citizens and in war zones, where vulnerable religious minorities are easy prey for terrorist groups battling to secure power.
In Syria, and now, once again, in Iraq, the explosion of sectarian violence and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) pose a growing danger to Christians, including religious women, who have served Muslims as well as their fellow believers.
Earlier this year, 13 Syrian nuns were released in a prisoner exchange months after they were kidnapped from their monastery by Islamic militants. The nuns’ safe return was welcomed by the country’s beleaguered Christians, who have been disproportionately affected by their country’s protracted civil war.
Last fall, the Melkite Greek Catholic patriarch said that an estimated 450,000 Syrian Christians — about a third of the 1.75 million Christians who lived in Syria before the civil war broke out — have been forced to flee their homes, with many leaving the country.
Since then, Christians reportedly have lost more ground. This spring, The Christian Science Monitor reported, “The situation for Syria’s Christians has deteriorated, particularly in the northern city of Raqqa, where a jihadist group recently forced local Christians to choose between converting to Islam, paying a protection tax or being killed.” The militants were ISIS fighters.
Now, as ISIS crosses the Syrian border and rapidly secures strategic victories in Iraq, Christian churches have been burned and businesses looted. In late June, the United Nations reported that an estimated 10,000 Iraqis fled their homes in the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, caught in the crossfire of Kurdish forces and ISIS fighters. Then, on July 1, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon Louis Raphael I Sako issued a public appeal for the safe return of two Chaldean religious of the Congregation of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate. The nuns, Sister Atur and Sister Miskinta, had evacuated their orphanage in Mosul, amid ISIS’ occupation of Iraq’s second-largest city, and fled with their charges to a city in Iraqi Kurdistan. The nuns later returned to Mosul with three young Christians to check the monastery, and they had not been heard from for several days.
At the close of the month, ISIS announced the establishment of a caliphate — an Islamic state — that incorporates territory in Iraq and Syria but has no geographic boundaries. It is not yet clear what this will mean for Christians living in that territory, but the jihadist organization’s brutal record in Syria, including the practice of executing civilians, does not bode well.
We must pray that the Iraqi nuns and their young companions are soon restored to their community, but their abduction should also prompt U.S. Catholics to demand that our government pressures its allies in Iraq to secure the safety and basic civil rights of religious minorities.
Thus far, our national debate regarding an expanded U.S. role in Iraq has focused on the possibility of military intervention and efforts to replace the discredited Shiite-led al-Maliki government with a multi-sectarian government that represents every religious community.
But we should also prod the Obama administration to link any future aid to measurable evidence that Christians and other vulnerable groups are protected.
Meanwhile, American Catholics need not wait for the Obama administration to actively defend the rights of Christians. We can spread the word and mobilize Catholics across the country to provide emergency relief through Church-affiliated groups here and abroad.
We possess a moral obligation to defend the rights of Christians who suffer for their beliefs. The Church reveres the martyrs of the early Church, but we should take time to know the stories of would-be 21st-century martyrs like Meriam Ibrahim and pray for them.
“Ms. Ibrahim’s story bears uncanny parallels to another Christian story involving young African mothers who did become Christian martyrs, during the early third century: the story of Felicitas and Perpetua, executed for their faith in the Roman port city of Carthage in today’s Tunisia,” observed Charlotte Allen in a June 27 column for The Wall Street Journal. “Felicitas was a slave in an advanced state of pregnancy when she was thrown into prison” and prepared for her death “by wild animals in the Carthage arena.”
Allen observed: “The most dramatic parallel is the simple affirmation that Ms. Ibrahim gave in court that led to her death sentence: ‘I am a Christian.’ Those also were Perpetua’s words.”