In a prison in Khartoum, a dusty city on the banks of the ancient Nile in the African nation of Sudan, Meriam Yehya Ibrahim waits.
She is not alone in her confinement. Her son is with her. He is 20 months old. Her daughter is there, too. She was born in that prison last week. Together with their 27-year-old mother, they wait. Wait for her deliverance, wait for her execution by hanging. There is no middle ground.
Ibrahim stands convicted of apostasy; she renounced Islam and became a Christian. According to Ibrahim -- and the speaker of the Sudanese Parliament disputes this -- she was raised a Christian after her father, a Muslim, abandoned the family when she was 6. Under Sudanese law, anyone whose father was a Muslim is automatically considered a Muslim. Converting from Islam is against the law and Muslim women are forbidden from marrying outside their faith.
Ibrahim's "crimes" were apparently reported by her brother. She was tried and ordered to disavow her faith by May 15. But she refused and for that, they gave her the death penalty. Before she dies, she is to be whipped 100 lashes, the court having also found her guilty of adultery. This, for having sexual relations with her husband, Daniel Wani, a Sudanese Christian who has U.S. citizenship.
Her death, thank God, is not imminent. Ibrahim's lawyer is appealing her sentence. And the court gave her two years to nurse and wean her daughter before it is carried out. So Ibrahim waits. Outraged governments in more civilized places -- including the United States -- have urged Sudan not to do this evil thing. Petition drives have netted 650,000 signatures in the same cause. So, like Ibrahim herself, the world waits.
Is there no end to the barbarism that men -- and usually, it is men -- will commit under the rubric of faith?
The Bible defines faith as "confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." Martin Luther King defined it as "taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase."
But too often faith has less to do with hope and assurance and the courage to take steps in the dark than with justifying just this kind of theological bullying. How in the world does any nation or group believe it can "require" faith? Can faith ever truly be faith if it is imposed by force of law or threat of violence? Is faith faith if it is not freely chosen? If someone swore at gunpoint that she loved you, would you believe her?
Unfortunately, many of those who claim to be faith's most zealous defenders do not trust what they profess to believe, have no confidence that its appeal is strong enough that people will come to it and stay with it by the free movement of their hearts. They insult their own religions by suggesting people must be held to them by government and/or by violence. We see that in Sudan. What they model is not faith but fear, not the still small voice that compels footsteps on unseen stairs, but the loud, shrill outcry of cowards whose belief is so fragile as to totter at the first gust of contradiction, so frail as to require the enforcement of laws.
Meriam Ibrahim could have been free -- perhaps still could be free -- with a few simple words: Jesus is not Lord. She wouldn't have to mean it. Just mouth the words and get out. Surely, you think, Jesus himself would understand if she did.
But she won't. Instead she waits, ready to accept whatever comes. Let her captors note her courage and perhaps finally understand the tragic futility of what they do.
Laws don't give faith. And laws cannot take it away.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a syndicated columnist.