The Government of Sudan is attempting a public relations outreach (a.k.a. “charm offensive”). Khartoum has been stung by the reaction of the international community to its treatment of Sudanese Christian mother Dr. Meriam Yahya Ibrahim, 27, incarcerated in a Khartoum prison with her 20-month-old son, Martin, and as of May 27, 2014, with her newborn daughter, Maya. Khartoum’s charm offensives – in which the ruling National Congress Party officials assume a humane veneer, declaring their commitment to peace, always – usually are reserved for the U.S. State Department and Foreign Service personnel, naïve Christian peacemakers, and others afflicted with willful blindness. This tactic of pleasant conversation over cups of cardamom-spiced coffee, cloaking genocide in diplomacy and cultural diversity, has enabled the regime to survive for decades.
The Meriam Ibrahim Offensive began just days after the shocking ruling of Judge Abbas al Khalifia that Dr. Ibrahim be hanged for apostasy. The Sudanese Embassy in Washington, DC released a statement to assuage the concerns of those who heard of the death sentence. In that zany way in which President Omar al Bashir’s government lies and tells the truth simultaneously, the statement declared that “The Case of Mariam is neither religious nor political, it is Legal.” (It omitted the fact that the legal case against Ibrahim is Islamic law, the Shariah. Both Ibrahim’s marriage and her religious faith violate the Shariah.) The statement also reaffirmed the Government of Sudan’s commitment to human rights and freedom of belief, and very prettily thanked “all those who have raised their concern and sympathy on this issue.”
But the international community did not fall for this typical Sudanese diplomacy, not when it comes to shackling a pregnant mom and a toddler to a prison wall to wait for her eventual flogging and hanging. Most rational people around the world do not hear Meriam’s story and think “Oh, a law violator! She must be punished!”
Instead, the world sees the plight of a courageous Christian woman, who has refused to renounce her faith. It sees a little boy shackled in prison with his mother because the Sudanese government will not allow his Christian father to have custody of a child they consider to be Muslim. It sees a tiny baby girl, in squalid, disease-ridden conditions. The world sees a loving husband and father, Daniel Wani, a South Sudanese Christian who made a good life in a new country, and became an American citizen and a biochemist. They see himWani now, separated from his family, suffering from muscular dystrophy, bereft. And so protest letters and petitions condemning Ibrahim’s apostasy sentence continue to land at the Massachusetts Avenue doors of the Sudanese Embassy, and to also wing their way to Khartoum, in spite of the Sudanese government’s efforts to reduce a family tragedy to a “legal issue.”
Therefore, as of Saturday, May 31, the Khartoum regime has gone into a second phase of its charm offensive, hinting coyly that Ibrahim may soon be released. Foreign Ministry Under-Secretary Abdelah Al-Azrak told Reuters News Service that government authorities in the country are “working to release” Ibrahim “through legal measures.”
Al-Azrak also told the BBC that Sudan "guaranteed religious freedom and was committed to protecting the woman." Oddly, Ibrahim’s team of attorneys, nor her husband had not been advised of this development before the foreign ministry spoke the news agencies, nor have they been contacted since. The Daily Mail, which has provided some of lead reporting on Ibrahim’s treatment revealed that her lawyers “do not believe the offer is genuine, and is a ploy to silence the growing outcry.”
Speaking to The Telegraph on May 31, Ibrahim’s attorney, Elshareef Ali Mohammed said,
“It’s a statement to silence the international media. This is what the government does. We will not believe that she is being freed until she walks out of the prison."
Hopefully, the United States and other Western nations that are putting pressure on Khartoum will not be gullible either. Too often, the U.S. government has trusted the promises and declarations of Khartoum, and while the U.S. has acted according to the “carrots” it has promised the Sudan government for good behavior, the regime has failed to honor its promises. Whether the U.S. has offered any incentives to Khartoum to release Ibrahim is not known, but her imprisonment has drawn international outrage. It would seem possible that Khartoum has felt the sting and decided that the approval of the world for pardoning Ibrahim outweighs the approval of the hard-core Islamists who want her dead. As attorney Mohammed said, “It shows our campaign to free Meriam is rattling them. We must keep up the pressure.”
While the world community, members of the U.S. Congress, and the British government – including both Prime Minister David Cameron and the Foreign Office, put pressure on Khartoum, the regime continues its shameless pressure on Ibrahim to renounce her Christian faith and convert to Islam. The Daily Mail quoted a spokesperson from the US-based Sudan Justice Center who said that “they have been promising Meriam money and security if she becomes a Muslim.” According the Center, Muslim clerics spend almost the whole day in her cell, telling her to give up her Christian faith. “They have said they will protect her and her family if she does what they want.”
In addition, The Telegraph reported that the Bashir government recently sent some 10 employees of the state-controlled press to see Ibrahim, photograph her, and publish a series of articles claiming that she was actually a practicing Muslim.
“They wrote that she prayed five times a day and read the Koran – which is totally not true,” Ibrahim’s attorney Mohammed told The Telegraph. “She didn’t want to talk to them but did not have the right to say no. They took photos and filmed her, and she did not like the photos. She asked them to delete the photos, but they said no.” Then they further tormented her by showing her their articles published in the government-owned Hikayat, Al Dar, Al Sudani, and Al Intibaha. Al Intibaha is owned by the uncle of President Bashir. Mohammed said that Ibrahim was very upset by this and that the attorneys were angry “because it could influence the court of appeal.”
If Ibrahim should be released, continued pressure is needed to ensure her safety and that of her children -- both American citizens by virtue of Wani – and the safety of her husband and attorneys. Pressure is also needed on the other player in the matter, the U.S. State Department, to obtain the spousal visa that rightfully belongs to Dr. Ibrahim, or alternately, political asylum.
Wani’s pleas to the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum were ignored not once, but three times. The State Department needs to be reminded that little Maya joins brother Martin as what must surely be the youngest American citizens incarcerated in a Sudanese prison. Maya probably also holds the dubious honor of being the only American citizen born in a Sudanese prison – and definitely the only American citizen born in a Sudanese prison to a mother who was kept in shackles during labor.
Advocates will not relax the pressure on the Khartoum regime to halt the draconian implementation of Shariah law under which most of the people of Sudan are suffering. The treatment of this little family by the regime is not unusual. Christian persecution, Arab imperialism, slavery, and genocide which demonstrate the hypocrisy of the National Congress Party Government of Sudan’s claim that it is committed to “all human rights and freedoms of beliefs” span the length and width of the country. Khartoum is currently waging genocidal war in at least three regions of Sudan – the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile State, and Darfur. In the space of four days, May 27-30, the Sudanese air force dropped 55 bombs on Kauda town in the Nuba Mountains. On May 1 it bombed the only hospital in the Nuba Mountain war zone for two days in a row. And the regime is similarly waging violent jihad in Blue Nile State and Darfur.
Ibrahim’s situation has been a microcosm of both the abuse of human rights perpetrated by Sudan, and of U.S. foreign policy in response to that situation. There have been valiant efforts, particularly by members of Congress, and there has been neglect and apathy. But the plight of Meriam Yahya Ibrahim has put a face, actually four faces, on Sudan’s human rights abuses and enabled people around the world to witness the personal rather than theoretical implications of Shariah.
Is it possible that this growing, massive awareness will not only result in the kind of push needed to pressure the U.S. government to demand Dr. Ibrahim’s freedom, but also result in the kind of ongoing push required for it to no longer fall for Khartoum’s charm offensives and to take actions needed so desperately in the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile State, Darfur, and everywhere that the Sudanese government is violating human rights?
Faith J. H. McDonnell directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).
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