Sudan must recognise that the rights of conscience are sovereign

Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher who was jailed in Sudan in 2007 for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Mohammed (PA)

We all know that when we visit a foreign country, we ought to respect that country’s laws and customs. If you do not wish to do this, then stay at home. Thus it might well be the case that sensible people steer clear of Sudan for the foreseeable future.

You may remember the “teddy bear blasphemy case” back in 2007 which dominated the news for some time. A British teacher in a Sudanese junior school invited her class to vote on what name to give the class teddy bear. It all escalated somewhat: she was arrested and that Friday after prayers a mob of 10,000 men streamed through Khartoum demanding her execution. The law had sentenced her to a mere fifteen days in jail, but the crowd thought that this was intolerable leniency. After considerable pressure from the British government the teacher was released and repatriated.

Now, no one, at least no one sensible, is saying that we should deliberately antagonise people’s deeply held cultural and religious beliefs. Provocations are unwise. But at the same time, we have to ask ourselves, what sort of a country is it that seems so keen on the death penalty for perceived insults to its religion? It is perfectly true that there are many people in America and Britain who believe that certain people deserve the death penalty (something I deplore, by the way), but this is not quite the same as what happened in Sudan back in 2007. And not only in Sudan, and not only in 2007. Back in February 1989 mobs gathered in Britain itself to burn a book and demand the execution of its author.

To want to kill people who annoy you is intemperate. These feelings of anger need to be brought under control; expression of such feelings should never be encouraged. Yet, disgracefully, there were very few to stand up for Mr Rushdie back in 1989.

Sudan, having revealed its true character in the teddy bear case, has now done the same thing once more in the case of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, the pregnant women condemned to death for apostasy. Amnesty International is supporting her case, and as she is pregnant, and the sentence cannot be carried out just yet, there is a chance that international pressure can be brought to bear; and, one hopes, internal pressure as well.

It is important to understand the reasoning of the Sudanese law in this matter. Meriam is, they say, a Muslim. Her father was Muslim, ergo she is Muslim. She is a professing Orthodox Christian, and has never been a professing Muslim, as she has told us, and we should have no difficulty believing. So, we have the clash of two world views here: religion as something you inherit, like ethnicity, versus religion as a belief system you freely profess. Incidentally, on these grounds President Obama himself ought to be indicted for apostasy as he is the child of a Muslim father, just like Meriam, and thus “ought” to be considered Muslim.

Here in the West religious identity is a matter of personal choice. Now, it is perfectly true that when someone leaves the Catholic Church, through a formal act of defection, they incur a penalty in canon law, that of excommunication, thorough which they lose all the rights and privileges that they once enjoyed as Catholics. Such a penalty is only incurred under certain conditions, though – it does not apply to children under the age of fourteen. Hence, another American politician, Mrs Palin, was brought up Catholic, but joined a Protestant church as a child: she is not under the penalty of excommunication. Even if she were, as an ex-member of the Church, it is hard to see what difference it would make to her in practical terms.

Meriam’s case tells us a great deal about the Muslim mindset as it exists in Sudan today. Clearly the Muslims feel that they are under siege. They imagine slights when none are intended, as in the teddy bear case, and apostasy where none has taken place. But even if Meriam had apostatised, that is turned from Islam to Christianity, even then, any non-religious sanction against her would be utterly outrageous.

In the end, the Sudanese need to change. They need to recognise that the rights of conscience are sovereign, and that the rights of conscience trump every legal system (as the Catholic Church teaches, and not only the Catholic Church.) If they did so, I am sure Sudan would be a happier country. Meanwhile, let us pray sanity may prevail, and let us pray for Meriam, her safety and that of her child. And let us all keep away from Sudan.


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