31 May 2014

South Sudan: Expert - Unjust Sentence for Christian Convert


The case of Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, who has been sentenced to death in Sudan for alleged apostasy, has sparked international outrage. DW spoke to Dr. Khataza Gondwe of Christian Solidarity Worldwide about the case.

Merian Yahia Ibrahim Ishag and her husband, Daniel Wani

Dr. Gondwe, what is the connection between Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the imprisoned Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag?

We've been working on her case since her sentence was given to her, publicly since at least 13 May, highlighting the gross injustices in the sentences that have been handed to her. We heard of her case from another Christian organization that works on these issues, and as we followed the case we realized that this might be something that we needed to get involved with. So we're in touch with others who work on the case in Sudan, and we're following it that way and also lobbying most of the time behind the scenes on her behalf.

Do you have any new information about her status and well-being?

Well, apart from the fact that she's just had this baby and wasn't too pleased about the conditions in which she had the baby, there haven't been any real updates. We're awaiting the results of an appeal against the sentence that was lodged by her lawyers on the 22 May. I think after that things may start moving a little bit more quickly.

Do you have any direct contact with her husband?

We have. However, in terms of her husband being able to visit her, initially he spent a whole day trying to visit her and the baby; it took a while for him to actually be allowed to do so. And that's been a hallmark of this case: that her husband had difficulty in accessing his wife and children - a 20-month-old child is also jailed with his mother. And he's only been allowed to visit in the presence of her lawyers, mainly perhaps because the marriage is not recognized by the court that sentenced her to flogging for alleged adultery, which includes illicit sex, and death by hanging for apostasy.

There has been growing international solidarity: The German and the US government are involved and considering action; the nationwide meeting of German Catholics published a plea for release. What do those reactions mean to you?

Oh, all the reactions are very, very welcome interventions. Yesterday I received a copy of an intervention by the Sudan Council of Churches which spoke of increasing persecutions and harassment of churches in Sudan, particularly since the division of the two Sudans. There has also been reaction from the Southern Baptist Convention. Even from the beginning when her sentence was renewed, or recognized, there have been reactions from the British Foreign Office; and increasingly the American Embassy in Khartoum, which initially had been less than helpful to her husband when he went for assistance for his wife, has been speaking out on her behalf.

Do you think those interventions will eventually help?

Well, we hope so. All we can do is continue to emphasize the fact that these sentences aren't just. This lady never practised Islam and even though she's been charged under a section of the Sudanese criminal code, the Sudanese constitution recognizes the right to freedom of religion or belief, and also it emphasizes that nobody should be forced or coerced into adopting a faith that he or she does not believe in. Everywhere the constitution has supremacy over the law - I mean, that's the ultimate law - so this whole situation never should have arisen in the case of this lady. So the key thing to do is to press for the enactment of the constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.

Do you know of other cases of similar circumstances, in Sudan or in the area, or is this an unprecedented case?

Yes, we're hearing that there may be at least two other cases where Christians have been declared apostates for marrying Christian men. One of them that we're looking into - we haven't had any further confirmation about this - occurred in a town called El-Gaddarif which is on the Eastern border with Ethiopia, where a lady, whose name is Faisah Abdallah, went to renew her papers and was arrested because she could not be a Christian with a Muslim name. She herself is from the Nuba mountains, and her parents raised her as an evangelical Christian. Her husband unfortunately had to flee Sudan two years ago because of persecution and she, too, we're hearing, has been charged with apostasy and also adultery because of her marriage to a Christian man.

So it seems that, perhaps encouraged by this case, others are also taking similar actions against women in the same position. And unless this case is really stopped in its tracks this could become something that will be coming up often in terms of Sudan.

Which would you consider more helpful: the prayers of the Christians in the world or the pressure of political bodies against Sudan?

[Laughs] Oh, I believe in prayer and action! Both are vital. Prayer is good, but you also must put your prayer into action. I think the two together will bring a change.

Dr. Khataza Gondwe is Team Leader Africa and Middle East with (CSW). CSW is an international organisation working for religious freedom through advocacy and human rights, in the pursuit of justice. Due to her frequent travels to sensitive regions she asked that her photograph not be shown publicly.

The interview was conducted by Martin Koch.

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