“I bear a lot of scars on my body from my time in prison,” Mariam Ibraheem told a crowd of 1,200 people gathered in Washington, D.C., for the cause of international religious freedom. “Each of those scars tells a story of a woman who was trapped in a horrible situation
because of her religion.”
Ibraheem was addressing the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit 2021, a bipartisan, civilian-led gathering July 13-15 that drew both Democratic and Republican leaders and was co-chaired by Sam Brownback, who most recently served as ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom in the Trump administration.
In 2013, Ibraheem was imprisoned on charges of adultery and apostasy, or the renunciation of Islam—a crime punishable by death in Sudan. A Sudanese Christian, she was born to a Christian mother, but because of her father’s Islamic faith, the Sudanese government considered her to be a Muslim as well. When she married a Christian Sudanese American man and refused to renounce her Christian faith, her half-brothers handed her over to the authorities, who declared her marriage invalid and her child illegitimate.
Ibraheem was chained in a prison cell, along with her 9-month-old son, Martin, and sentenced to 100 lashes and death by hanging. While imprisoned, she discovered that she was pregnant with her second child, and at that point, authorities agreed to postpone her sentence until after her delivery. In May 2014, still shackled, she gave birth to her daughter, Maya.
During her pregnancy, Ibraheem’s story was picked up by international media outlets, prompting many to advocate for her release—including the embassies of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, as well as the European Union. In June 2014, after months of international pressure, the Sudanese Court of Appeals revoked Ibraheem’s conviction, and she was granted asylum in Italy. Ibraheem and her family eventually moved to the U.S., where she now has more freedom to live out her faith.
“As a Christian, I know my freedom is in Christ,” she told those at the summit. “… No one can take away your right to pray or worship. No laws, no government, no authorities can take that away from you.”
Ibraheem’s story of religious persecution was just one of many at the IRF Summit. Among the other notable Christians who spoke were pastor Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned in Turkey; Asia Bibi, formerly held under a death sentence in Pakistan; and Joy Bishara, who survived captivity under the Boko Haram terrorist group in Nigeria.
Unlike the two religious freedom ministerials held in D.C. in recent years—and a third virtual conference organized in Poland—this year’s IRF event was led by private citizens, not government officials.
“The issue of religious freedom is not going to get the same emphasis in the current administration as it did in the previous one,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a commissioner for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “So, it’s up to civil society to take the torch of religious freedom and run forward with it.”
While religious freedom may not top the Biden-Harris administration’s list of diplomatic priorities, Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, did announce at the summit that President Biden would be appointing the next IRF ambassador in “the coming weeks.”
Some countries—like Sudan, which recently repealed its apostasy law—are taking steps to improve religious freedom within their borders, but many other countries are growing more hostile toward people of faith.
In fact, the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation says 80% of people in the world live in countries with high levels of governmental or societal restrictions on religion. And faith-based legal advocacy organization ADF International estimates that 80% of those who experience religious discrimination are Christians.
“Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world,” said Sean Nelson, legal counsel for global religious freedom with ADF International.
When it comes to Christian persecution, one country that was on the lips of most everyone at the summit was Nigeria.
Africa’s most-populous nation with the continent’s largest economy, Nigeria has seen more than 27,000 Christians murdered for their faith since 2012, said Kelsey Zorzi, director of advocacy for Global Religious Freedom with ADF International.
Radical Islamist groups such as Boko Haram, Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Fulani jihadis are slaughtering Christians by the thousands in hopes of gaining full control of the country’s government and creating a Sharia, or Islamic law, state.
Johnnie Moore, a former USCIRF commissioner and the president of the Congress of Christian Leaders, said Nigeria is “witnessing a five-alarm fire within its borders.” He went so far as to call the country a “failed state,” plagued by corruption and the inability to keep its citizens safe and secure.
Perkins, of the Family Research Council, warned, “If this devolves into genocide or a Rwanda-type situation, this is going to destabilize the entire African continent and will spill over into Europe.”
Another region of the world where religious freedom is in jeopardy is Asia.
In some Asian countries, while Christianity may be technically legal, there’s an added caveat that only government-endorsed churches are allowed.
Summit speakers told of Asian churches being torn down, crosses being ripped from altars and Christians being followed and tracked.
And yet, despite significant restrictions, and even persecution, the church in Asia is growing at an exponential rate. According to The Washington Post, Asia’s Christian population of 350 million is projected to grow to 460 million by 2025.
For some Westerners, countries in Africa and Asia may seem far outside their realm of influence, but Perkins encourages American Christians to understand that we all have a responsibility to advocate for those experiencing religious persecution around the world.
“Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,” he said at the summit. “Not everyone has a platform to speak out, but all of us can pray. … God can move where governments refuse to.”
Above: Katrina Lantos Swett, co-chair of the International Religious Freedom Summit 2021, with Mariam Ibraheem.
Photo: Mariam Ibraheem's Twitter @MariamIbraheem0