“A 27-year-old Sudanese woman named Meriam Ibrahim seemed likely to become a 21st-century Christian martyr in May 2014 when she was sentenced to death by hanging because of her faith.” Charlotte Allen
Ms. Ibrahim was re-arrested on Tuesday by a government security force as she, Mr. Wani and their two young children tried to leave Sudan for the U.S. The Sudanese-born Mr. Wani has been an American citizen since 2005. The new charges against Ms. Ibrahim—which are reported to carry penalties of up to seven years in prison—consist of falsifying the family’s travel documents, which were issued by the embassy of South Sudan, the largely Christian territory that seceded from overwhelmingly Muslim Sudan in 2011 after a decades-long civil war. Mr. Wani hails from what is now South Sudan.
Ms. Ibrahim’s story bears uncanny parallels to another Christian story involving young African mothers who did become Christian martyrs, during the early third century: the story of Felicitas and Perpetua, executed for their faith in the Roman port city of Carthage in today’s Tunisia. Vibia Perpetua was a well-educated young woman, not unlike Ms. Ibrahim, who is trained as a doctor. Felicitas was a slave in an advanced state of pregnancy when she was thrown into prison along with Perpetua and other Christians to await their deaths by wild animals in the Carthage arena. Perpetua, like Ms. Ibrahim, went to prison along with a baby son. Felicitas, like Ms. Ibrahim, bore a baby daughter before her execution date.
The most dramatic parallel is the simple affirmation that Ms. Ibrahim gave in court that led to her death sentence: “I am a Christian.” Those also were Perpetua’s words, as they were of many martyrs in Roman times. Like Perpetua, Ms. Ibrahim, who was brought up in the Ethiopian Orthodox faith of her mother, also refused to recant.
This isn’t just a matter of ancient and modern coincidences. More significantly, the Roman world of the third century was strikingly like today’s secularized West in its contempt for Christians and indifference to their persecution.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has found that Christians are persecuted in more places today than any other religious group, suffering formal or informal harassment in three-quarters of the world’s countries. The persecution of Christians,Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom wrote in the June 23 Weekly Standard, “is occurring on a massive scale, it is underreported, and in many parts of the world it is rapidly growing.”
Yet this persecution is mostly ignored. The Sudanese civil war included waves of genocidal mass killings of southern Sudanese Christians by the Khartoum government during the 1990s, but the media looked the other way until the Sudanese started slaughtering Muslim rebels in Darfur in 2003. The recent kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by the Islamic-fanatic group Boko Haram has been portrayed as a war on women’s education. You seldom hear that most of the girls are Christians and one of the aims of the abduction was their forced conversion to Islam.
Amnesty International has admirably agitated for Meriam Ibrahim’s release, but partly on grounds of Amnesty’s opposition to the death penalty. Even many Christian churches in the West seem to be too constrained by ethnic sensitivities to assert themselves on behalf of their persecuted brethren. They haven’t paid much attention to the near-extermination of the ancient Christian communities in Iraq during the past decade of turmoil, or to the systematic destruction of Coptic churches in Egypt by Islamic radicals in 2013.
Meriam Ibrahim did manage to gain the attention and sympathy of the West by reason of her courage, her beauty, her status as a mother of two young children and the extreme circumstances of her case. If there are parallels between her experience and a story of ancient martyrdom, the lesson might be that the West’s cultured classes’ hostility to Christianity, like that of their of Roman forbears, results in a passivity that tolerates attacks on people whose only crime is their faith.
Ms. Allen is the author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus” (Free Press, 1998).