July 21, 2020
“I am very pleased, God has answered our prayers,” Noha Kassa, a Christian leader in Sudan, proclaimed earlier this month in response to the repeal of Sudan’s infamous apostasy law.
For years, Sudan had topped lists of worst violators of religious freedom in the world. But all of that changed in the spring of 2019 when the military overthrew the longstanding President Omar al-Bashir. Since then, the joint military-civilian Sovereign Council has been steadily enacting reforms, including reforms recommended by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
In July, the government repealed Article 126 of Sudanese criminal law, which prohibited apostasy and required the death penalty as punishment if the accused did not repent. Sudan is the only Islamic-majority country to repeal an apostasy or blasphemy law in the last two years.
In Muslim-majority countries like Sudan, apostasy laws are intended to keep people from abandoning Islam. Such laws are an affront to religious freedom because they prevent people from choosing and living out their faith as their conscience dictates.
Sudan’s apostasy laws became famous around the world, thanks to the case of Mariam Ibraheem. In 2014, Mariam was sentenced to death for apostasy. With a toddler at home, she gave birth to her second child in jail. Mariam had been raised by her Christian mother, though her father was a Muslim. Before marrying her Catholic husband, Mariam joined the Catholic Church in 2011.
Mariam’s case prompted an international outcry, and pressure from foreign governments eventually prompted the Sudanese government to release her. Now, the law that once sentenced her to death has thankfully been repealed.
While repealing such an oppressive law may seem like an obvious move to those of us in the West, this act required Sudanese leaders’ courage. There are radicals in Sudan who did not want to see this change happen and would prefer to see Sudan’s legacy of religious repression continue. The current Sudanese government should be applauded for its efforts to create a freer society for its people.
Apostasy, blasphemy, and anti-conversion laws continue to plague religious minorities in many parts of the world. As a part of the State Department’s effort to prioritize international religious freedom in its foreign policy, U.S. diplomats should consistently urge every government who maintains one of these laws to repeal them in diplomatic meetings.
Sudan’s move toward embracing religious freedom is worth celebrating. However, it also reminds us that apostasy laws are still on the books in several countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Mauritania. Sudan’s example proves change is possible, and it should encourage us to advocate for the repeal of laws oppressive to religious liberty everywhere they remain.