The Meriam Ibrahim case: Religious liberty, but only for Christians?

A Christian woman in Sudan has attracted an outpouring of support.

American Christians were in the forefront of those demanding that Sudan release a woman who was sentenced to death for “apostasy” for allegedly converting from Islam to Christianity. But was that because they support religious liberty as a general principle, or because the victim in this case was a co-religionist?

No doubt some of those who rallied to the cause of Meriam Ibrahim, who was released from jail Monday after her capital conviction was overturned, would have been just as exercised if a Christian government had gone after a Christian convert to Islam. (Ibrahim insists that she was never a Muslim and was raised a Christian by her Ethiopian Christian mother.)

But Christians also have a history of believing, and acting on, the idea that “error has no rights.” That was the view of the Roman Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council adopted a Declaration on Religious Freedom in the 1960s. As late as 1864, Pope Pius IX rejected as “insanity” the idea that “liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society.”

As for American evangelical Christians, many of whom have championed Ibrahim’s cause, I suspect that most place a higher priority on spreading the Christian Gospel — even in inhospitable places like Muslim countries – than on vindicating an abstract right to religious liberty.

That’s one reason some liberals have misgivings about efforts by Congress and the Obama administration to make religious liberty a priority in U.S. diplomacy. They fear that the project is a Trojan horse for aggressive Christian evangelism in Muslim and other non-Christian countries. (To his credit, Obama has been studiously neutral in his advocacy of international religious freedom.)

In fact, some groups that claim to be dedicated to religious liberty have an odd conception of that term. Go to the website of the Alliance Defending Freedom and you’ll find a page “Promoting Religious Liberty Across the Globe.”

Among the activities described is opposition to laws in some states in India that prohibit conversion from Hinduism to Christianity. Fair enough; that’s a classic example of what anyone would recognize as support for religious freedom.

But then there is this item: “In the case of Lautsi vs. Italy, at the European Court of Human Rights, radical secularists attempted to remove Christian crosses from all public school classrooms. After working with the Italian government and a separate Alliance Defending Freedom intervention, the court recognized Italy’s right to place crosses in its country’s classrooms.”

A Jewish or Muslim child in an Italian state school might not regard a crucifix on the classroom wall as a vindication of religious liberty — any more, I suspect, than most American Christians would be comfortable with the placement of a Koran in their children’s public schools.

So by all means oppose the persecution of Christians in the Sudan, Saudi Arabia or anywhere else. But make it clear whether you think the persecution of Christians is wrong because it’s persecution, or because the victims are Christian.

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3

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