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Taking religious freedom seriously

Peter Kurti | 13 June 2014

peter-kurti Last month, a court in Sudan sentenced a young mother to death because it found she had converted from Islam to Christianity and refused to renounce her Christian faith.

Under Islamic or Sharia law, Meriam Ibrahim has committed the offence of apostasy even though her Muslim father left the family home when she was six and she was raised by her Ethiopian Orthodox mother.

Whilst on death row, Meriam has given birth to a second child, a daughter. According to Sharia law, her execution must now be postponed for two years.

Unless the penalty is commuted, Meriam will then be flogged and hanged. An international campaign urging the Sudanese government to free her is underway.

'Freedom of religion is a core human right,' said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. And Amnesty International has declared 'the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is far-reaching and profound.'

The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights sets out a specific freedom from coercion to protect religious believers from the very fate that might well await Meriam.

The tragedy is that for many millions of people throughout the world, freedom of religion is little more than a dream. The reality they face each day is not religious liberty but religious persecution.

Muslim converts to Christianity are not only being persecuted in Sudan but throughout the Islamic world in countries from Algeria to Somalia and Iraq to Pakistan.

In Australia, where the number of people professing no religion is on the rise, it can be hard to understand how dangerous it can be to follow a religion or to convert from one religion to another.

Religious belief is always tolerated in a free society such as our own because the state recognises that the religious instinct in humans is an ancient one that runs deep.

But believers and non-believers alike in Australia should not take freedom of religion for granted. It is time to be more vigilant in defending religious liberty which is more than a purely private matter.

Freedom of religion is one of a quartet of freedoms including freedom of speech, association and conscience - all essential in a free and open society.

The Sudanese government continues to deny Meriam Ibrahim each one of those freedoms. Petitions urging Sudan to release Meriam are currently circulating.

Here are two things Australians can do to uphold the essential freedoms that we take for granted: first, sign one of the petitions, and second, urge our government to maintain its pressure on Sudan so that Meriam Ibrahim may yet see her children grow to adulthood.

Peter Kurti is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.