We Westerners take so much for granted.
We are free to be of any religion or no religion. We are free to change our religion at will. Most of us don't even have to tell the government that we've done it, because our religious affiliation and beliefs have no bearing on anything the government does. We have no official religion to list on our driver's license or identity card. The government doesn't consider the religion of the man and woman involved when recognizing marriages--the couple's religions are none of the government's business. This separation between government and religion, while taken too far at times, was instituted to protect individuals from unwarranted government intrusion into their personal lives. And we take it all for granted.
I read a news article last week. It reports on a situation that can happen only in a country where the government is able to intrude at will into the personal lives of its citizens. It can happen only in a country where the government explicitly favors one religion over another. It can happen only in a country where religious freedom may exist for some, but not for all.
Should this situation be possible in a country that is a signatory to the U. N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which allows for freedom of religion, including conversion?
Read about the situation; then you decide:
Raheal Henen Mussa was born into a Muslim family 22 years ago. Three years ago, she decided to become a Christian. She did not attempt to change her official religion, knowing that government authorities would not allow it. It would cause major problems if she tried. She could even face the death penalty for apostasy.
Mussa had another problem. She wanted to get married. To a Christian. But she wasn't allowed to do that. Sharia, or Islamic, law forbids Muslim women from marrying Christians. Even if the woman is really a Christian whose government says she's a Muslim. And her government says in its constitution that Sharia is the basis for legislation. Mussa knew that she would not be allowed to marry a Christian in the traditional manner. So Mussa and her beloved, Sarwat George Ryiad, found another solution.
Traditional marriages that are recognized by the government are performed by clerics in front of witnesses. But these official marriages cannot take place until the couple is able to secure and furnish a home, which can take years in a difficult economy. So many young people instead opt for zawag al 'urfi marriages. These marriages are not officiated by clerics, and there are no witnesses. Instead, there is a lawyer and a marriage contract. These marriages are not recognized as "official marriages" by the government, but the couple involved are bound by the contract and consider themselves married.
It isn't an ideal situation, but it is a solution, so Mussa and Ryiad took it and were married. They realize that in the eyes of their government, they are not married. They never requested any official recognition of their marriage. Because they did not request official marriage status, they have violated no civil law of their country.
But they have violated Sharia law. And their country responded by arresting Mussa. She was held by the secret police for seven days before being turned over to her Muslim family. Her family burned from her arm the tattoo that identified her as a Christian. Two days after she was placed in her family's custody, Mussa escaped. She and her husband fled the city and went into hiding, afraid of being arrested, beaten, and forcibly separated. This government apparently has the ability to interfere in any marriage, whether or not it recognizes the existence of the marriage.
There are multiple issues here. One of them is the government deciding who a person can and cannot marry based on religion. Another is the government being able to influence a person's official religion, whether it is by saying that a child's religion must be the same as the parents' religion or by deciding when a person can or cannot change religions.* The fundamental issue, however, is government interest in what we Westerners view as an intensely personal matter--an individual's spiritual and religious life--an interest that, even in the Western world, would open the door to government intrusion.
No one but God knows how this situation will turn out. Mussa lives in a country where there is nominal freedom of religion, but she isn't allowed to change her official religion or to marry a man who shares her personal religion. Her options were severely limited. She could have remained unmarried--a huge social stigma, and a denial of basic human needs and desires. She could have married a Muslim man and quite possibly have been abused for her "apostasy." She could have married a Christian whose identification card also read "Muslim," thereby putting off the problem to the next generation. She chose to marry the man she loved, an official Christian, without receiving government recognition of the marriage but also without breaking any civil law. Why, then, is she being treated like a criminal?
*There is one man who is trying to change his official religion from Islam to Christianity. He has another hearing in early May. The outcome of his case could have profound implications for people like Mussa.