I felt a wave of horror and panic when I learned of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman who was being held in a woman’s prison in Sudan, with her newborn baby and 20-month-old son. She was eight months pregnant when she was sentenced to 100 lashes and death by hanging.
Meriam’s crime? Her Christian faith and subsequent marriage to a Christian man. Outrageous? In that part of the world, yes. Meriam was charged with adultery because it is illegal to marry a Christian. She was charged with apostacy, because she renounced the Muslim religion. That’s it. Can you imagine the lack of that little right we call ‘freedom of religion’? How many Americans would hang for adultery? How many beheaded for not practicing the faith of their parents?
“I am a Christian, and a Christian I will remain.” Ibrahim said these words to the judge at her sentencing hearing. She refused to deny her faith, even in the face of death…AND with her two small babies in her arms! Shock. Horror. Could I do that? My babies are not that far off in age from Meriam’s. What if they were in jail with me for my faith and we would all be killed? This story haunted my dreams, but they were dreams that I woke up from. Thankfully Meriam was eventually released, but many Christians are still suffering and dying, in the Christian persecution in the Middle East.
Meriam’s witness moved me as much as her sentence horrified me. The young 27-year-old mother, who wound up delivering her second child; a baby girl, in the prison, faced the ultimate question of faith. Remind you of anyone?
There were once two young holy mothers who faced a horrific death sentence for refusing to renounce their Christian faith. Saints Perpetua and Felicity lived in the Roman Empire during the reign of Severus. Perpetua was a well-educated 22-year-old woman when she became a Christian in the year 203, despite the persecutions and being attacked by her own father. She was imprisoned. The heart-breaker was her separation from her baby boy, who was brought to her in prison to be nursed.
There is no doubt that Perpetua found comfort in the company of another young Christian mother; Felicity, who was eight months pregnant during the cruel imprisonment. It was against the law to shed the blood of an innocent child in the womb, but Felicity gave birth painfully in the prison two days before her death sentence. Her baby girl was adopted by Christians in Carthage.
Felicity and Perpetua were attacked by wild animals in the arena before having their throats cut. Pertetua’s last words were, “Stand fast in the faith and love one another.”
Christians in the Middle East are currently under attack by the Islamic State, a Muslim extremist group with a strong presence in Syria and Iraq. There is no such freedom as the freedom of religion for these militants, who control everything from the diet to personal prayer of the residents. The videos of the Islamic State training young boys and cultivating in them a desire to kill the infidels (particularly in Europe and America) are unbelievable. The children of these countries are exposed to grizzly scenes of those who refuse to accept the Muslim religion and pledge allegiance to the mission.
For the first time in 2,000 years, one of the largest cities in Iraq, Mosul, is without Christians. What happened to them? They had two choices: convert to Islam, or die. Homes and properties, as well as churches have been marked by the letter ‘nun‘ indicating ownership by a Nazarene or Christian. The militant group then swept through, seizing, destroying, and killing all marked by the symbol.
What do they want? A Caliphate, or Succession of a Muslim Empire led by a supreme religious and political leader. The threat to us? This succession hopes to take over the Middle East and the world at large. Muslim supporters in Europe have begun to unite and protest in solidarity with the Islamic State. “We will raise the flag of Allah in the White House,” stated a militant for the camera during an interview.
Is this genocide? You better believe it. The Iraqi minority group called Yazidis are being hunted down and exterminated. The women are being taken as slaves.
Our Christian brother and sisters in the Middle East are suffering and dying for their faith, and still it seems so unbelievable. In the same way that we read about the holocaust and wonder how the rest of the world went on. Or watch Hotel Rwanda in horror that it occurred during our lifetime. These atrocities are ongoing and we have to raise our voice. Raise them to God in prayer, and to our elected officials who can send aid and work with other countries such as Turkey, which closed its dam on the Euphrates River, significantly reducing the drinking water and hydroelectric power that Syria and Iraq badly need.
There will never be an end to suffering on this pilgrimage, but we cannot sit idly by and do nothing. We have a voice. We have a will. And thankfully we have many freedoms that we can exercise.
St. Ambrose said that “Not only for every idle word must man give an account, but for every idle silence.” Pope Benedict brought our attention to a 14th century dialogue on Christianity and Islam, between a Byzantine emperor and an educated Persian, on the irrational nature of a holy war. The emperor states that spreading religion by the sword is evil and inhumane. “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats.” Christianity identifies God with reason and therefore can appeal to reason in understanding what is opposed to God.
The voice of Perpetua rings out from centuries ago, “We came to die out of our own free will so we wouldn’t lose our freedom to worship our God. We gave you our lives so that we wouldn’t have to worship your gods.”
Saints Perpetua and Felicity, watch over all mothers and children who are separated from each other because of war or persecution. Show a special care to mothers who are imprisoned and guide them to follow your example of faith and courage. Amen.
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Copyright 2014, Kimberly Cook