Skip to main content

Sudan's Christians 'don't feel safe in prayer' after apostasy death sentence

By Nima Elbagir, CNN
updated 6:16 AM EDT, Wed June 4, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Christians in Sudan fearful after mother of two sentenced to death for abandoning Islam
  • Woman denies apostasy, says she was raised Christian despite having Muslim father
  • Christian South seceded in 2011; Sudan's leader has moved country towards more Islamic identity since then
  • Human rights lawyer says hundreds of Christians have been deported for "evangelizing"

Khartoum, Sudan (CNN) -- "Father we ask that you stand with your child Mariam. We ask that you strengthen and support her and grant her your grace."

It's the Sunday service in Khartoum and the pastor is leading the Christian congregation in prayers for Mariam Yahya Ibrahim, the mother of two convicted last month for the crime of apostasy after a court ruled that she abandoned the Muslim faith.

It's crime she strenuously denies, maintaining both that she was raised Christian -- in spite of being born to a Muslim father -- and that she would have been within her rights to leave the faith. Neither statement has won her clemency under Sudan's harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

As the pastor finishes his sermon, praying that God grant her strength, even "as the hangman's noose swings before her," he asks that the congregation pray that if she is not granted freedom, the Holy Father will grant her eternal life.

Exclusive: Sudanese woman's husband
Sudan death row husband
How is aid to Sudan actually spent?
Kerry pushes for peace in South Sudan

More than half the pews arranged before him are empty, and members of the choir struggle to fill the hall with their voices.

As Mariam's case has dragged on, Sudan's churches have begun to empty. We were asked to conceal the identity of the congregation; it is clear many Christians here are scared.

And activists tell us it is within good reason. After the secession of the majority Christian South in 2011, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir announced this new Sudan would be Arab and Islamic in identity.

Although Sudan's constitution made provision for both ethnic diversity and religious freedom, shortly after the president's highly-publicized speech, the then-minister of religious affairs announced that no licenses would be granted to allow for the building of new churches.

Since South Sudan gained independence, problems between Khartoum and the mostly Christian regions bordering the new state have intensified.

The new edicts, many activists told us, felt highly politicized.

So how deep does the tolerance enshrined in the country's constitution actually run? Not very, says Nabeel Adeeb, a prominent Sudanese human rights lawyer, himself a Christian.

"If you look at the laws of the country," he tells us, "the laws favor Muslims."

"Number one, the crime of apostasy, which is creating a wall around Islam that nobody is allowed to leave."

And what is worse, he says, is the sense that extremist sentiment toward Christians is increasingly tolerated.

"In the war of propaganda between the two religions, Christianity will stand no chance. All the media is used to promote Islamic beliefs and to speak about Islam as the only religion and to insult other beliefs, especially Christianity which is normally referred to as being an infidel."

Last year, Adeeb says he documented around 200 cases of Christian foreigners deported for the crime of "evangelizing."

"It was almost en masse," he says. "They confiscated bibles and searched Christian centers. Deported them without instigating any legal procedures."

CNN has placed an interview request with Sudan's foreign ministry and has been promised that the foreign minister will address the concerns raised.

In the past, the Sudanese government has pointed to the many churches lining the streets of their capital as evidence of its tolerance. Many Sudanese we spoke to think the government is obsessed with a belief that -- as one put it -- "Christian missionaries (are) converting on every street corner." One Christian activist, who also declined to be identified, said: "The church is now contaminated with terror. You don't feel safe in prayer."

The only hope, she said, was that Mariam's trial had now brought that terror out into the international spotlight.

READ MORE: Husband of jailed Christian fears for family's lives

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:54 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
A decade on from devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Red Cross' Matthias Schmale says that the lessons learned have made us safer.
updated 7:24 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As soon as word broke that "The Interview" will hit some theaters, celebrations erupted across social media -- including from the stars of the film.
updated 1:44 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Did a rogue hacker -- or the U.S. government -- cut the cord for the regime's Internet?
updated 8:06 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Monaco's newborn royals, Princess Gabriella and Crown Prince Jacques Honore Rainier, posed for their first official photos with their parents.
updated 12:06 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the world wide web, gives a speech on April 18, 2012 in Lyon, central France, during the World Wide Web 2012 international conference on April 18, 2012 in Lyon.
What's next for the Internet? Acclaimed scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee shares his insights.
updated 3:22 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
The United States and North Korea have long been locked in a bitter cycle of escalating and deescalating tensions. But the current cyber conflict may be especially hard to predict.
updated 4:00 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
A chilling video shows Boko Haram executing dozens of non-Muslims.
updated 6:34 AM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
New planes, new flight tests ... but will we get cheaper airfares?
updated 12:46 PM EST, Sun December 21, 2014
The killing of two cops could not have happened at a worse time for a city embroiled in a public battle over police-community relations, Errol Louis says.
updated 9:51 PM EST, Sun December 21, 2014
The gateway to Japan's capital, Tokyo Station, is celebrating its centennial this month -- and it has never looked better.
updated 11:21 AM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
Unicef has warned that more than 1.7 million children in conflict-torn areas of eastern Ukraine face an "extremely serious" situation.
updated 12:01 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT