This challenge from my seven year old daughter to help Meriam would take me on an amazing adventure I would never forget.
When I asked my seven year old daughter Olivia what she thought about me going to Sudan to try to help Meriam Ibrahim, her response surprised me. She said, “Dad, are you kidding me? Do you even have to think about this? You have to go and try to help Meriam and her babies! Oceana, my wife supported me 100% on this mission.
Back Story: Two Days Before Olivia’s Challenge
I had received several emails from individuals requesting that I attempt to do something about the impending trial and execution of Meriam Ibrahim of Sudan, who was scheduled to be executed for adultery and apostasy. The story of her case had become an international sensation. “If you are going to be a serious peacemaker then you need to do something about helping this woman,” was the gist of some emails I was receiving. I wondered what I could possibly do in a nation frowned upon by the U.S. government. A nation in Africa that was 11,000 miles from me in North Carolina.
My Muslim brother Abdel Azim Elsiddig, an Islamic scholar, peacemaker and friend, had received calls and emails from both Muslims and Christians to see what he could do as an American citizen who was also from the Sudan.
It was in mid-May of 2015 when Abdel called saying I needed to travel with him to Sudan by May 27th because Ali Karti, the Foreign Minister of Sudan, had agreed to meet with us in Khartoum concerning Meriam’s case. He said that we would also meet with some key individuals in the judicial system to discuss Meriam’s situation, and who could help us understand the legal complexities of this case that you never heard about in the media. I was glad that Abdel and I would be taking this journey together. He was a peacemaker and expert in Islamic sharia law and he knew all of these key governmental officials.
Become The Answer To Your Own Prayers
I literally could not believe this was happening. My head was spinning. I thought to myself, “Who am I to stand before these men?” I had been praying for Meriam for several months before this happened. I asked God to help her and to send people to do something about this. It did not enter into my wildest imagination that God would ask me to become the answer to my prayers. All I had was great love and confirmation in prayer from the Lord that I must go.
Meeting With The Foreign Minister
While I was in the Sudan it was my highest privilege to meet with Ali Karti, the Foreign Minister of Sudan. He was the third most influential leader in Sudan. There has also been a great deal of controversy concerning his involvement in the Darfur crisis. We had a wonderful meeting together that lasted for several hours. Believe it or not we spent a good chunk of that time talking about Jesus and how Muslims and Christians can find a common bridge of connection in him, but the main focus of our conversation concerned Meriam.
The Foreign Minister made it clear to me that he did not agree with the lower court ruling concerning Meriam’s case. In fact he was surprised that it even got as far as it did. He said there were many interfaith marriages in the Sudan, so this ruling was a shock to him and to many Muslims and Christians in the Sudan.
He went on to explain to me how there were many diverse Islamic rulings that could have been chosen in a case like this, but for some reason the lower court went with this most severe one. He said to me that there had not been an apostasy ruling like this one in decades and that particular court case had nothing to do with interfaith marriage. He believed that this ruling was not a relevant Islamic legal option for modern Sudan today. He also believed that the ruling was unconstitutional because the constitution of the Sudan guarantees, in principle, religious freedom for all of its citizens.
I was told that under Islamic law a Muslim man can marry a Christian woman but a Christian woman, cannot marry a Muslim man. It still happens and in some instances the marriages are eventually accepted by the families, but in situations where they are not accepted the families simply cut off relationships with the couple. Meriam had a Christian mother and a Muslim father. Although he left Meriam and her mother when she was a small child this was the first instance that Foreign Minister knew of where an interfaith marriage in Sudan was being challenged on the grounds of apostasy in a Sudanese court.
Foreign Minister Karti went on to say that the firestorm that Meriam’s case had caused around the world was good for the Sudan. Some Muslim judicial leaders, scholars, politicians and clerics in the Sudan were saying that this case has shown them that they were in need of legal reform, and that archaic laws like this should be removed. The issue of constitutional reform was a conversation among many of them that had started as a result of this case.
As our conversation progressed Minister Karti made it clear that he had openly expressed his opinion to the international community. He gave me permission tell my friends that he was confident that Meriam would not be sentenced and executed, but that her case had to go through the court system because the executive branch of the Sudanese government does not have authority over the judicial branch. Meriam’s lawyer had made an appeal and he could contest each ruling all the way to the Sudanese Supreme Court.
Although Ali was an influential leader in the Sudan he could not just step in and force the courts to do what he wishes. He told me that he was confident that the ruling would be overturned in the judicial process. His desire was to see Meriam being able to go home to be with her husband while her case was working it’s way through the court system. He also was of the opinion that this lower court ruling that demanded Meriam renounce her marriage to a Christian and convert to Islam would be thrown out of court. As I stated previously, the current constitution of the Sudan in principle guarantees religious freedom for all of its citizens, but unfortunately this is not always enforced as it should be. The constitution as it stands now would make the lower court ruling unconstitutional because it would be a violation of Meriam’s religious freedom as a citizen of Sudan.
As I got to know Minister Karti I did not sense any deception or guile in his words to me. I told him that I often take a 45 minute prayer walk on the beach near my home, and that I had been praying earnestly for him and his country. I told him that I believed he wants to be a compassionate and just leader. I reminded him that God wants all of the citizens of the Sudan, both Muslims and Christians, to prosper and feel safe in their own country. I said, “My dear brother Ali, God wants you to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly before Him. He wants you to fight for the widows, the orphans and the oppressed. He wants you to stand for those who are weak and have no power and cannot stand up for themselves. He wants you to love the Lord your God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself and treat other people (both Muslims and Christians) the way you want to be treated. Brother Ali, I believe you have come into a place of influence for such a time as this. I promise you this day that every time I walk the beach to pray I will call your name out to God. I will pray that you will be just and merciful as He is and that you will love all your people well. The Qur’an says that if you save one life it is as if you have saved the whole world.”
Minister Karti seemed deeply touched by what I said. He paused for a moment to reflect and then responded, “Brother Jeff, when you pray on the beach my heart will be connected to yours and we will be together bound by eternal friendship. Please continue to pray for me that I will be the man God wants me to be.”
After two trips to the Sudan and five weeks after my first meeting with Minister Karti I received the following brief email from the Foreign Minister.
Thank you my brother… A few hours ago an Italian plane took off from Khartoum. On board was the deputy Italian foreign minister accompanied by the lady (Meriam Ibrahim), her husband and their two children. You have been with us all the time we were dealing with this issue. I hope to see you soon to pray together for a better future of the relationship between our two nations.
I was deeply touched and honored that the Foreign Minister went out of his way to let me know that he and his people had kept their word. He did not have to take the time to do this. I hope to pray with him again in the future.
The Only Way To Get Rid of An Enemy Permanently
It has been over a year since Meriam was released. She is living in the U.S. with her family and has created a new life.
It was a joy to be part of this amazing journey and to see first hand what God can do when we reach out in friendship to those we often perceive to be our enemies.
I have been told by some of my Sudanese friends that the Sudanese government does not care about sanctions and how much pressure the world puts on them. You will find this type of thinking all over Africa. They are used to Western disapproval and international pressure. This is a huge mistake that we as Americans make when we engage the Muslim world. Martin Luther King Jr. said that the only way to get rid of an enemy permanently is to make him your friend. I am convinced that most of our problems in the world could be solved over a few meals if we would go to the people we often think of as our enemies, listen to them, talk about Jesus, and put some of their interests above our own. Abdel and I attempted to do this in the case of Meriam and it worked. As I sat with these men I did not find enemies, but new friends who often saw the world through a different lens. I found we had way more in common than not. I love the people of the Sudan and a piece of my heart will always be there. God has a destiny for that country.
My goal in peacemaking is never ideological or theological conformity. Unfortunately, this seems to be the default position of our government and often our churches. My goal in peacemaking is to get people to like me and want to have a relationship with me. What I have found over the years is that I can be on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum with some one but if we start eating together and becoming friends then we start finding ways to work together to make a lasting change in the world. This really works. I have experienced this firsthand. If we wait for the people we often think of as our enemies to come into line and agreement with us theologically, politically, or ideologically, then polarization will remain. In the end we are all just people. Starting with friendship, loving our neighbor and treating other people (including nations) the way we want to be treated might just be the best starting place. I think Jesus said something very similar 🙂
As I said the turning point in all of this was when these Sudanese leaders realized that Meriam’s case was unconstitutional. The Sudan’s constitution guarantees religious freedom but unfortunately it is not always enforced by everyone in leadership on the grass roots level. Meriam’s execution would have been a violation of their own Islamic constitution. All of this took place over meals with prayer, laughter and building friendship. I credit my dear Muslim brother Abdel Azim Elsiddig with this because he is an expert in sharia law and he has known these men most of his life. I just had the honor of serving with him and being there to represent a Christian presence and perspective. I have not mentioned all of the names of the leaders I met with in the Sudan. These humble men did not want any recognition or publicity for what they did.
I am convinced that had it not been for the years of peacemaking that my good friends former Congressman Mark Siljander and Imam Abdel Azim had done in the Sudan none of this would have happened. I simply stood on the shoulders of giants.
Meeting With Meriam Ibrahim
Abdel and I were permitted to meet Meriam in person at the prison. We were told by Sudanese officials that we were the first Americans to meet with her. She was a shy person and somewhat withdrawn. Abdel was able to make her laugh. Her children were beautiful. I told her that there were thousands of people praying for her in the U.S. and around the world. I asked her if she had a message for them. All she said was “Pray that I will be released.”