Posted: May 29, 2014 12:00 PM
A woman gave birth in prison on Monday. She's sentenced to die there because of her religion. Why should you care? Because it's 2014, and stories like these are — still — more common than shocking.
Photo credits: Free Mariam Yahya Ibrahim

27-year-old Mariam Yahya Ibrahim is sentenced to death. Her crimes: falling in love with and marrying a Christian man and sticking to her own Christian beliefs. On Monday she gave birth to a baby girl in a Sudanese prison, where she's sentenced to stay with her newborn and 20-month-old son for two years so she can nurse her baby before she's flogged and killed. Amnesty International, and Facebook users around the world are rallying in support of Ibrahim, because this Sudanese law is wrong.

Defining terms

Ibrahim is charged with adultery on the grounds that her marriage to a Christian man from South Sudan is considered void under Shariah — or religious law — for which the penalty is flogging. She’s also charged with apostasy — or abandonment of religion — for which the penalty is death.

Shariah deals with many topics addressed by secular law, including crime, politics and economics, as well as more personal matters, such as sexual intercourse, hygiene, diet, prayer, everyday etiquette and fasting. Historically in Sudan, Shariah has been enforced to its strictest understanding, and Ibrahim's case is no exception. She's sentenced to 100 lashes.

Apostasy is defined as the abandonment or rejection of a religion with words or actions. According to Sudanese law, apostasy is identified by a list of actions, such as a Muslim converting to another religion, denying the existence of God, rejecting the prophets, mocking God or the prophets, idol worship, rejecting Shariah or permitting behavior on the Shariah "no" list, such as adultery, eating forbidden foods or drinking alcoholic beverages. Apostasy in Sudan is punishable by death or imprisonment until repentance, which is exactly what Ibrahim's sentence is.

(Wide) separation of belief and practice

For most Americans, Shariah conjures the Islam religion and the Muslims who practice it. Many Muslims detest this connection, explaining the difference between their religion's belief and a country like Sudan's practice.

Nina Hamza is an American mom of three, a practicing Muslim and an immigrant from India. Hamza is one of these Muslims. She says, "As a Muslim, I’m tired of people and even whole countries committing atrocities and then excusing them by saying that our religion dictates it. No religion would allow this, let alone dictate it. One of the most quoted verses of the Quran is, 'There is no compulsion in religion.' This means exactly what it says, which is that people should not be forced to believe or act in a certain way. Islam, like other religions, provides moral guidelines, and it is up to the individual to follow these guidelines."

Anyone who follows (a Western or Eastern) religion can relate to this truth: All people interpret religious texts differently. This seems to be the case here: Muslims aren't calling for Ibrahim's death; the Sudanese interpretation of Shariah is.

Death sentence

Miriam's son

Ibrahim was arrested, newly pregnant, in August after Muslim relatives charged her with adultery for marrying a Christian South Sudanese man. The apostasy charge was added after Ibrahim said that she too is a Christian. On May 15, her death sentence was handed down by a court in Khartoum after she refused to renounce her Christianity. As things stand now, Mariam will stay in prison (with her two children) for two years to nurse her newborn. The date of the execution has not yet been announced but would be after this time period.

Photo credits: Free Mariam Yahya Ibrahim

Ibrahim's story struck an international chord, which is why you and I have heard of it. But it's far from unique. Hamza explains, "There are countless stories of Muslim women being forced to dress a certain way, being prohibited from getting an education and requiring them to follow a certain lifestyle that is not of their choosing."

Amnesty International's stance is that Ibrahim is a prisoner and must be immediately and unconditionally released. Manar Idriss, their Sudan researcher, said, "The fact that a woman could be sentenced to death for her religious choice and to flogging for being married to a man of an allegedly different religion is abhorrent and should never be even considered."

Foreign embassies in Khartoum, including those of the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, have urged the government to reverse course, and Ibrahim's Sudanese lawyer and wheelchair-bound husband have appealed the sentences. And yet, nine months later, Ibrahim's case is still in the paperwork stage, and she is still in prison. But around the world, (pleasantly) surprising alliances are being made on her behalf.


A U.K. resident,Emily Clarke, started a petition to Free Mariam (which today has over 400,000 signatures), and Facebook users from around the world have crossed religious boundaries to the perhaps more important human ones on the page Free Mariam Yahya Ibrahim.

We, as Christians, want peace and freedom in what you want to believe...

What Clarke and the Free Mariam Facebook page creators have in common is twofold: they're advocates for — and strangers to — Ibrahim. Neither group has a personal connection to Ibrahim, just a compassionate one.

Free Mariam Yahya Ibrahim was started by three siblings from the Netherlands (who have chosen to stay anonymous) on May 15. At the time this article is being written, the page has over 5,000 Likes. I spoke with one of its founders, who said, "We are against every death penalty, but this is one of the worst... We, as Christians, want peace and freedom in what you want to believe... This death penalty is against every humanity law but also against every religious law... A real Muslim wants peace on earth, just like a real Christian or a real Jewish person and so on."

Miram in her wedding dress

Hamza couldn't agree more. She says, "This particular case... is grave because it’s not just how [Ibrahim] follows her religion that is being enforced but the actual belief in the religion itself. There is no way that this is acceptable in Islam or to Muslims around the world. We need to be able to separate what religion dictates from what culture dictates. The Quran does not dictate these [punishments]; the Sudanese government does. No good has ever come from mixing religion and politics. This is one more horrible example of this."

The siblings behind the Facebook page share updates under the hashtag #FreeMariam to see how many voices can come together to, appropriately, free Mariam. They say, "We started this page because we thought we can save her. We still think that. But we need everyones [sic] help... [We need] people to stay in touch with Mariam's story, to share it and to sign the petitions... Only then, we'll [be able to] save Mariam." Often movements to save people we can't see or hear drop in momentum. The hope here is that nothing is dropped until the charges are.

Photo credits: Free Mariam Yahya Ibrahim

Take action

Follow Ibrahim's story on the Free Mariam Yahya Ibrahim Facebook page, sign the petition and — most important — keep telling Mariam's story. This one isn't about Islam or Christianity — or religion at all. It's about human beings banding together to do the right thing.

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