The Urgency of the Gospel

Mariam Yahia Ibrahim Ishaq is 27 years old. She is eight months pregnant. Last week, she was sentenced to be beaten and then executed in the Sudan. Her crime is marriage: Ms. Ishaq married a Christian, which violates the law of her nation because it makes her a Muslim apostate.

Mariam Ishaq has never been a Muslim. She was raised in a Christian home, and married a Christian man. But the law of Sudan makes every citizen a Muslim, and makes Mariam Ishaq an adulteress, and an apostate.

She is not an adulteress. She is not an apostate. But Mariam is my sister. We are bound up together in the Body of Christ—her joy is my joy, and her pain is my pain.

After her baby is born, she may well join the hundreds of Christian women martyred this year. She will join Syrian women beaten and shot in the deserts of their country. Alone, and suffering in prison, she joins Sister Gilberte Bussières, a Canadian nun kidnapped last month in Cameroon. In suffering for the faith, Mariam joins Christian women across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East who are confined, and beaten and tortured for their faith.

Tertullian said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. Of course, he was right. I know that a faithful God will unify Mariam’s sufferings with his own—that she enters the Paschal Mystery as a willing and heroic victim. I know that from Mariam’s martyrdom, souls will come to Jesus Christ. Her suffering, as St. Ignatius of Antioch observed, is Eucharistic. She is to be “ground as wheat,” and “crushed as grapes,” in order to “become a sacrifice to God.”

Sudanese CoupleBut the knowledge that Mariam’s martyrdom will be an occasion of grace does not mollify my sorrow. Nor should it. In fact, her suffering has stayed with me over the past few days, an ache that seems to be planted by the Holy Spirit.

Religious liberty has been a topic of conversation in the United States over the past few years. The federal HHS contraceptive mandate has made us all aware that our basic freedoms will not always be protected. But like so many important topics, the issue of religious liberty has mostly sparked momentary concern, which has largely lapsed into complacency.

Of course, it’s easy for us to become complacent. The urgency of the Gospel seems distanced from our lives.   The call to a new evangelization seems like something for others. The difference we can make seems small, and insignificant. And, without perspective, the cost of evangelization may seem too great.

Mariam Ishaq is a witness to the danger of complacency. Her impending martyrdom, and the plight of women like her around the globe, should wake us up to the urgency of religious persecution. The injustice of our times calls out for Christian discipleship, and for a new and compelling evangelization. Earlier this month, Professor Robert George said that

to be a witness to the Gospel today is to make oneself a marked man or woman. It is to expose oneself to scorn and reproach. To unashamedly proclaim the Gospel in its fullness is to place in jeopardy one’s security, one’s personal aspirations and ambitions, the peace and tranquility one enjoys, one’s standing in polite society. One may in consequence of one’s public witness be discriminated against and denied educational opportunities and the prestigious credentials they may offer; one may lose valuable opportunities for employment and professional advancement; one may be excluded from worldly recognition and honors of various sorts; one’s witness may even cost one treasured friendships. It may produce familial discord and even alienation from family members.

Professor George was right. There is a real social cost to proclaiming the Gospel. But unless the world comes to know Jesus Christ, one heart and one family at a time, there will be more martyrs like Mariam Ishaq. Whatever cross we face in proclaiming the Gospel boldly, none of us will face the danger she faces. Her courage and fidelity should call us on to proclaim Christ boldly.

In the weeks to come, I’ll be praying from Mariam Ishaq. I’ll pray that she be spared martyrdom, and that her sufferings will bear much fruit. But I’ll also join her in solidarity—I’ll die the little deaths that come with public witness to Christ. And I’ll trust that in the hands of God, they might make a difference.

Terry Polakovic


Terry Polakovic is the president of Endow, a Catholic educational and formational apostolate for women.

  • GaudeteMan

    Lets pretend she were a Jewish woman about to be martyred by Christians because the law of the land stated that she must be a Christian. Would that spark a tad more international outrage?

    • Art Deco

      A tad more, but only a tad. The international conference circuit is pretty hostile to the Jews. See the insipid “Elders” ( The original four included two certifiable anti-Semites (Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson) and one other just this side of that (Jimmy Carter).

      • Howard

        The question of the State of Israel and its relationship with its neighbors is not exactly a religious question. Please keep the two separate.

        However, I do agree with your first sentence. Parts of Europe are now making circumcision illegal, with the excuse that it is “cruel” to the infant, and kosher and halal animal slaughter illegal, with the excuse that it is “cruel” to the animal. Whether the intended “target” of these laws is the Jewish or the Muslim population, it is still wrong.

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  • mikidiki

    Perhaps Pope Francis will pray publicly for her when he visits Palestine and the Holy Land? After all, he opines that Islam is the religion of peace!

    • richado

      Pope Francis on Islam:

      “Authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.”

      see :“Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of the Holy Father Francis to
      the Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful On the
      Proclamation of the Gospel In Today’s World,” from, November 24:

      “253. In order to sustain dialogue with Islam, suitable training is
      essential for all involved, not only so that they can be solidly and
      joyfully grounded in their own identity, but so that they can also
      acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying
      their demands and shed light on shared beliefs. We Christians should
      embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in
      the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in
      countries of Islamic tradition. I ask and I humbly entreat those
      countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their
      faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western
      countries! Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism,
      our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful
      generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.”

      Please tell me I’m wrong.

      • Art Deco

        “Authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.”


  • Yvonne Spitek

    What about the Christian men who marry? They don’t suffer the same punishment? Just curious ??

    • Objectivetruth

      Her father was a Muslim, her mother, orthodox Christian. Therefore, under arse backwards Sudanese sharia law, she should be a Muslim. If Mariam’s husband’s father was Muslim but he grew up a baptized Christian, he would be suffering the same punishment.

      The bottom line is this is all incredibly horrible. Everyone say a prayer for Mariam.

    • TheAbaum

      That was sarcasm, right?

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  • cestusdei

    If she was in a same sex union you would hear lots of outrage.

  • WSquared

    I second prayers for Mariam: for those who pray the Rosary on a regular basis, notice that Mariam shares Our Lady’s name.

    Mariam Ishaq is a witness to the danger of complacency.

    That’s a salient point, Ms. Polakovic, particularly given your quotation of Robert George, who indicates that there is no demarcation line between witnessing in private and in public. I’m not saying this to be antagonistic or divisive, but it’s important to George’s points and your overall points about witnessing to the Gospel that martyrdom already hits close to home. Many of us have been and are still among the complacent, and we all struggle.

    Some of us already know what it’s like to be defending the Catholic faith within our own Catholic families, and we have to keep going, even though we make mistakes. Martyrdom– i.e. witness– is what we’re expected to live where we are. It may be white martyrdom, but that doesn’t always make it easier. It’s not “somewhere over there,” and it’s not “always for somebody else.”

    We should pray for mercy for both Mariam and ourselves: repentance and true contrition for sin are always good antidotes to complacency. They make us more receptive to our need for God’s mercy as well as heighten our senses for that need in others.

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  • Bucky Inky

    How about this: If she were a Christian man instead of a Christian woman you would be seeing at least two or three times more articles written in Catholic online journals and two or three times more emails from Catholic organizations delivered to your inbox entreating you to pray for his deliverance from his captors, all because the dignity and vocation of women is not properly understood and women are marginalized, while there is a disproportionate amount of emphasis on men suffering in Muslim countries.


  • Ciriaco D. Jabido Jr

    Belonging to the same Body of Christ, we also share your pain. There will be many who will be praying for Mariam.