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.”
But 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.