Why, I thought, write yet another post detailing news coverage of China’s miserable treatment of it’s ethnic religious minorities? Or coverage of how insular religious communities — such as ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and New York — still refuse to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously, causing its spread in their midst?
Perhaps the unnerving knowledge that, as I sat down to write, the first 2020 American presidential campaign debate was just hours away also colored my mood. (And how godawful did that, unsurprisingly, turn out to be?)
Then there was my agitation over a loved one who is fighting debilitating physical pain, daily, resulting from a life-threatening disease. Couple that with the soul-crushing realization that there’s nothing I can do about it.
So I fell into an emotional maelstrom. I needed more uplifting post material. And then I found this story by way of The Washington Post. Its headline read: “A Nigerian boy was sentenced to 10 years for blasphemy. Then people started offering to serve part of it.”
I grabbed it. A news story spotlighting compassionate people — of indeterminate faith — jointly working to make lemonade out of the most sour of religious lemons offered hope. Here’s the story’s top, which is long, but essential:
DAKAR, Senegal — After a religious court in northwest Nigeria sentenced a 13-year-old boy to 10 years in prison for blasphemy, the head of the Auschwitz Memorial in Poland publicly offered to serve part of that time, invoking the memory of the Holocaust’s youngest victims.
The Polish historian said he received dozens of emails over the weekend from people around the world who wanted to do the same thing.
“I cannot remain indifferent to this disgraceful sentence for humanity,” wrote Piotr Cywinski, who is in charge of preserving the former Nazi Germany death camp, in an open letter Friday [Sept. 25] to the Nigerian president.
Children, he noted, were “imprisoned and murdered” under Adolf Hitler’s reign, and the memorial director said he did not want to see another child robbed of his future.
Instead, Cywinski proposed that he and 119 other volunteers each serve a month of the boy’s prison sentence in Kano.
By Monday, he said, more than 150 offers poured in from people across Africa, Europe and North America.
Here’s a portion from further down in the story.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s spokesman, Garba Shehu, said the leader declined to comment on the Kano case and directed questions to the northern state’s governor, who did not immediately respond.
The outcry put an international spotlight on Nigeria’s Sharia courts, which operate in 12 states throughout the country’s predominantly Muslim north.
Only Muslims can be tried in the system, where judges have handed out floggings, amputations and death sentences.
The nation’s secular appellate courts, including the Supreme Court, can reverse those decisions. … The sentence violated the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Nigeria ratified in 2001, according to UNICEF — as well as the country’s own child protection laws, which safeguard freedom of expression [the boy’s lawyer] said.
The story circulated widely. The New York Times published its own version. So did the Associated Press and Reuters. Both wire service offerings, plus others — including the BBC — were published or broadcast around the world.
Given the Holocaust connection, JTA, the global Jewish Telegraphic Agency, was also quick to weigh in. JTA included in its story that Cywinski, the historian, is not Jewish.
Despite the wide coverage, every version of the story I saw was riddled with reportorial holes, the Post and Times stories included.
For example, just what did the imprisoned boy — Omar Farouq, jailed since February — say to his friend that was deemed blasphemous?
Did he insult the Prophet Mohammad or Islam itself? Or did he commit an act that contravened the strict practice of Islam that dominates northern Nigeria?
How old is the “friend” and why was his testimony believed? Assuming the “friend” is also a child, was the alleged blasphemy corroborated by an adult? Did Farouq and the “friend” have a disagreement?
Were such details withheld to protect Farouq’s family? Or perhaps to protect or the sources or the journalists and outlets that reported the story?
Who are some of the individuals who have volunteered to take Farouq’s place and serve his time? Are any familiar names, such as internationally known human rights advocates or celebrities?
Why have they volunteered to spend time in a Nigerian prison, certainly not a great place to be in the middle of a global pandemic?
Were some of the volunteers Jews with a personal or family connection to Auschwitz or the Holocaust? We’re talking Poland, so are Catholics, religious or otherwise, deeply involved?
Shockingly, while researching this post I learned that 71 nations still have blasphemy laws of some sort in their legal codes, though the vast number of them do not enforce them. Muslim Pakistan is prominent among the handful that do enforce them.
So, yeah, my lemonade story could be sweeter. It was not a simple “good news” story.
We don’t know at this point what will become of young Farouq. And honestly, I doubt officials in the city of Kano or at the federal level in the Nigerian capital of Abuja will want privileged foreigners to experience its wretched prison system.
But in a world in chaos, at a time of deep personal uncertainty and Yom Kippur’s religious reflection, the compassion of well-meaning strangers shown toward a 13-year-old — a mere child! — is something to be celebrated, and for me to hold on to, if only momentarily.