Mariam goes free, at last, while some questions linger

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Other than editors trying to figure out the correct spelling of her name, there were very few journalistic questions this past week when the long-suffering Mariam Ibraheem Ishag was finally spirited out of Sudan to freedom.

Several people sent me notes to coverage of this event, with one stating the obvious in a note that said: “Okay, so nothing to do with press a critique — I’ve just got to share with you the news! Hallelujah!!!!”

However, I did notice two rather interesting wrinkles in some of the coverage. The first was rather subtle and the second was — well — just a puzzling hole in many stories.

First, there was the issue of how to describe her “crime.” Here is the top of the solid report in The New York Times.

ROME – Mariam Ibraheem Ishag, a Christian woman whose death sentence in Sudan for refusing to renounce her faith set off an international protest, arrived in Rome … to a hero’s welcome and a private audience with Pope Francis.

The pope spent a half-hour speaking with Ms. Ishag; her husband, Daniel Wani, who is an American citizen; and their two young children, Maya, born in prison just days after Ms. Ishag’s conviction two months ago for apostasy, and Martin, a toddler. Apostasy carries a death sentence in Sudan, where President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has imposed Islamic law.

Here’s the question: Is it accurate to bluntly state that apostasy carries a death penalty under “Islamic law” or is the matter more complex than that?

The question, once again, is linked to a basic reality that many journalists struggle with — that this is on one monolithic, consistent approach to Islamic law. It is certainly true that, in many or even most Islamic lands, sharia law includes a death sentence for apostasy, including the act of converting from Islam to another faith. However, there are different approaches to sharia in different lands. In some cultures, the death penalty may be found in the laws, yet this crime is rarely, if ever, enforced.

Yes, it adds another layer of complexity — adding at least a sentence or two of information — to note this conflict inside Islam. However, accuracy is accuracy and the public needs to know that not all Muslims believe that the death penalty is normative for this issue of conscience, which is clearly defended in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 18 to be precise).

And what about the mysterious hole in some of the news stories?

I found it fascinating that many news reports noted that Ibraheem was flown straight to Italy to meet the pope, yet forgot to mention that she was a convert — at some point in her life — to Catholicism. Even in the Times report, there was some sense of mystery about the nature and the timing of her faith. Read carefully:

The pope has spoken out repeatedly about the plight of Christian communities whose religious freedom is being threatened, in recent days highlighting the trials of Christians in the Middle East and in Mosul, Iraq, threatened with death by Islamic militants unless they convert.

Ms. Ishag became the focus of global headlines in May when a court in the overwhelmingly Muslim country sentenced her to death on charges of apostasy. Her father was a Muslim, but she had been raised by her Christian mother and had joined the Catholic Church shortly before marrying her Christian husband in a church ceremony in 2011.

So she was raised as a Christian during her childhood, yet converted to Catholicism shortly before her marriage. What was her church affiliation before she became a Catholic? This may sound like a minor detail, yet I have also wondered if this question played some role in the Sudan government’s refusal to recognize her childhood faith? What is going on there?

Meanwhile, many other mainstream news organizations never got around to mentioning the details of her faith at all. Note this BBC passage:

Mrs Ibrahim’s father is Muslim so according to Sudan’s version of Islamic law she is also Muslim and cannot convert. She was raised by her Christian mother and says she has never been Muslim. …

Mrs Ibrahim met Pope Francis at his Santa Marta residence at the Vatican soon after her arrival.

“The Pope thanked her for her witness to faith,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi was quoted as saying.

And in The Telegraph:

… (H)aving never left Sudan before, she found herself in Rome, greeted by Pope Francis in the Vatican.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she told Antonella Napoli, head of Italians for Darfur, according to La Repubblica. “I realised the greatest dream of my life — to meet the Pope.”

It’s almost as if, for some journalists, Catholicism is the default setting for the Christian faith. When in doubt, readers should simply assume that someone is Catholic. The reality on the ground in a land like Sudan is often more complex than that. Why not include this simple, factual detail?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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