The great American film director Frank Capra was an Italian immigrant. He came to the U.S. as a boy, worked hard to apply his talents to his chosen field, and such classic films as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "It's a Wonderful Life" are the result.
In 1982, Capra was given a Lifetime Achievement award by the American Film Institute. In his acceptance speech, he didn't just talk about movies or drop names. Instead, he talked about his love of his country. "America," he said, "just for living here, I kiss the ground."
That deep love of the world's most remarkable country touches a chord with all of us who cherish the liberty, prosperity, and opportunity our nation affords. It's that vision of America, a land of freedom where incredible things can be achieved by ordinary people, which still brings in hundreds of thousands of immigrants from across the globe today.
One of them is a Sudanese man named Daniel Wani. With his brother, he fled to the U.S. in 1998 to escape the horrendous violence then ongoing in his native country. In 2005, he proudly became an American citizen. Wheelchair-bound due to muscular dystrophy, he works as a biochemist in New Hampshire.
Three years ago, he traveled back to Sudan to marry Meriam Ibrahim, reportedly a graduate of a Sudanese medical school. They were wed in a Christian ceremony attended by about 500 people. This is logical, as both are professing Christians.
Today in Khartoum, Sudan, Meriam is being held in a fetid, filthy prison for refusing to recant her faith in Christ. Someone purporting to be from her family turned her into the Sudanese authorities on an allegation of "adultery" for marrying outside of Islam. An "apostasy" charge was then tacked on: Although raised as a Christian, her biological father is a Muslim. This means that, according to Sudan's version of Sharia law, she is a Muslim too – despite the fact that her father left her family when she was six, and despite the fact that she never practiced Islam and has always identified as a Christian.
Meriam is not alone in her prison cell. With her are her 20-month-old son Martin and, as of May 27, a newborn daughter, Maya. Because of Daniel's American citizenship, it would appear, pending proper verification, that their children are American citizens.
What is being done for them? It took a rally outside of the White House, but the Obama administration's State Department has finally issued a statement condemning the conviction.
But Mr. Wani told some British journalists that "the State Department asked him to provide DNA evidence proving that Martin was his biological son. He added: 'I have provided wedding documents and the baby's birth certificate, but this is clearly not enough. It's very upsetting that they don't believe me. They want me to take a DNA sample in Khartoum, then send it to the U.S. for testing. It's as if they don't believe a word I say.'"
To recap: An American citizen's wife and children (who are likely American citizens themselves) are being held in dreadful conditions by a foreign government, and it took until last week for the U.S. to catch up with its ally Britain on the issue.
Religious liberty is the cornerstone of all other freedoms: If one's allegiance to God is not foremost, then ultimately the state seeks to assume God's role. The imprisonment of Meriam Ibrahim and her children not only runs counter to everything for which our country stands, it is also an affront to our country.
As Family Research Council has documented extensively, the erosion of our religious liberty here at home is real and growing. The president has left open the State Department's ambassadorship for religious liberty for roughly nine months now, indicating how low a priority international religious liberty is for him and his administration. This should be unsurprising, though; how can Mr. Obama and his team defend religious liberty abroad when they seek to suppress it here at home?
While we don't know if the Obama administration is more adamantly pressuring the Sudanese government behind the scenes, apparently no U.S. official has visited Meriam in prison or checked on the well-being of her children. Mr. Wani said that he is unaware of any efforts by the U.S. government to free his wife. In addition, it does not appear that any U.S. officials have met with one of the people best situated to provide them with accurate information on the situation – the Sudanese attorney representing Meriam and her husband – Mohaned Mustafa Elnour of the Justice Centre in Sudan.
This is shameful. There was a time when being an American citizen meant something both here and abroad. It meant that no matter where you were in the world or what you faced you were not alone. Yet American pastor Saeed Abedini has been held in an Iranian prison for over two years. American missionary Kenneth Bae has been in a North Korean prison for 18 months.
Make no mistake there is a correlation between our indifference to religious persecution abroad and the growing intolerance toward religious freedom here at home.
We must stand with Meriam and her children by calling on President Obama to act. As Americans, we should do no less.
Rob Schwarzwalder co-authored this column.