In a letter sent yesterday, June 19, 2014, 38 members of Congress urged Secretary of State John Kerry to “further prioritize the case of Meriam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag, a Sudanese Christian who was sentenced to death for apostasy and 100 lashes for adultery.”
The bi-partisan letter, cc’d to Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, was spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ). It is just the latest in a number of efforts in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to help save the life of the young wife and mother, and reunite her and her two children who are incarcerated with her with husband Daniel Wani, an American citizen originally from South Sudan. Meriam and Daniel’s son, Martin, who is almost two years old, has been incarcerated with his mother in Omdurman Women’s Prison since her arrest. The couple’s newborn daughter, Maya, was born in the prison on May 27 while Meriam remained in shackles.
Members of Congress who sent the letter, in order of signature, are: Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), Frank Wolf, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), Chris Smith, Mike McIntyre, Carol Shea-Porter, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Paul C. Broun, Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), M.D., Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), Sanford D. Bishop, Jr., Michael Grimm, Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), M.D., Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ), Steve Chabot, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC), Collin C. Peterson, Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Brad Wendstrup, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), J. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN), Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), Shelley Moore Capito, Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS), Rep. Don Young (R-AK), Tom Griffin, Alan Nunnelee, Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), Jack Kingston, F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., Robert E. Latta, Jaime Herrera Buetler, Spencer Bachus, and Jan Schackowsky.
“We believe that Mrs. Ibrahim’s right to freedom of religion was violated and that she should be immediately and unconditionally released,” the signers write. Then they request that the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “exhaust ever legal means necessary” to ensure safety for Meriam and her family.
Similarly exhausting every legal means to find the most efficient and applicable one, members of Congress themselves are offering differing approaches to save Meriam. House Resolution 601, introduced by Congressman Franks on May 28, urges the State Department and DHS “prioritize giving Ibrahim asylum or refugee status.” Senate Resolution 453, introduced by Senator Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and passed by unanimous consent on June 3, condemns the charge of apostasy and the death sentence, and calls for “the release of her and her children.” More recently Private Bills “for the relief of Meriam Ibrahim, Martin Wani, and Maya Wani” have been introduced in both Houses. U.S. Rep. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) introduced H. R. 4821 on June 9, and Senator Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced S. 2474 on June 12. All of these pieces of legislation are attempts to counter the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum’s negligence and opposition towards Meriam and Daniel.
The letter to Kerry differs from the bills in that Kerry is also asked to “expedite the process” of registering Martin and Maya as U.S. citizens, “since their father and Mrs. Ibrahim’s husband, Daniel Wani, is a U.S. citizen,” a fact that has not been highlighted in the legislation. The letter also reminds Kerry that Wani has appealed for help many times to the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum and that the embassy was “less than forthcoming with assistance.” Therefore, the members of Congress urge Kerry to “direct” the Embassy to “prioritize the plight of this young family.” They further ask the Secretary that the State Department and DHS “quickly review all possible means available to grant Mrs. Ibrahim sanctuary in the United States”. . .and “prioritize granting her children U.S. citizenship, and ensuring that Mr. Wani has custody of his children.”
One issue that is not referred to explicitly in the letter is the unreasonable demand of the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum for DNA testing to prove the paternity of Daniel Wani. The State Department’s own regulations explain that DNA testing should only be necessary when other forms of documentation are unavailable. But although the members in their letter do not approach the DNA issue, their various references to Wani and “his children” show that the Congressional advocates are confident in both Daniel and Meriam’s marriage and that Daniel is the children’s father.
The letter closes with the obligatory thank you to Kerry and the State Department for recent public statements on Meriam Ibrahim’s behalf. But none of the State Department statements expressing “deep concern” and “deep disturbance” show the strength and determination to intervene displayed by the members of Congress in resolutions, bills, and this letter to Secretary Kerry. Hopefully, as the resolutions and Private Bills move to various committees, Congress will take its own advice that it offered to the State Department, focus on Meriam and her children, make the necessary amendments and revisions , and pass quickly and overwhelmingly the bill that will ensure the best outcome for the Wani family.
Faith J. H. McDonnell directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).