Mormon woman volunteers to be whipped to save Saudi blogger

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Saudi Flag“Are you as brave as Katrina Lantos Swett?”

That was the subject line of an email I received yesterday from the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.

Its founder, Katrina Lantos Swett, is also the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C.

She’s in the news this week because she and six other human rights activists have volunteered to take 100 lashes each of the 1,000-lash punishment that Saudi Arabia is meting out to a blogger accused of heresy against Islam.

Raif Badawi, a 30-year-old Saudi writer and father of three, is currently serving a prison sentence for “insulting Islam” on his website Free Saudi Liberals (which has, ironically, been shut down). Badawi is supposed to be whipped every Friday with 50 lashes until he has been lashed a thousand times. He endured the first flogging in January, and his health was so damaged that the government has postponed (but not prohibited) further whipping.

I briefly met Lantos Swett in September when she spoke at the annual Religion Newswriters Association conference. She was courageous and smart, describing in some detail the lack of religious freedom in various nations around the world, from Eritrea to North Korea.

Somewhere along the way she mentioned that she has seven children, and my Modar started tingling. I Googled Lantos Swett’s background while she was still talking, and swelled with pride when I learned that this impressive and passionate woman is a member of the LDS Church.

I introduced myself to her after the session, and even though she was rushing off to the airport she made time to talk to me and give me a hug. I’ve been following the efforts of her organization ever since.

Some background: She grew up Jewish, the daughter of two Hungarian Holocaust survivors. Her father served as a Congressman from San Francisco for 27 years, passing on to his children the importance of protecting human rights around the world.

While a teen at Yale (she got her B.A. when she was just 18), she was introduced to the LDS Church by her older sister, who was also a student, and started attending Institute classes taught by a doctoral candidate named Jeffrey R. Holland. (Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall for those classes?)

Lantos Swett has said that her background in both Mormonism and Judaism has made her sensitive to the need for religious freedom and protections for minority groups. “Both of these faith communities have experienced intense persecution at different times,” she told the Deseret News in 2012.

It’s unlikely that she or any of the other human rights activists will ever be called to stand in for their promised 100 lashes.

But the visibility they have brought to this case seems to have given the government of Saudi Arabia pause in pursuing its planned course of action. On Wednesday Lantos Swett told a newspaper in her home state of New Hampshire that the Saudis “have not yet lashed him [Badawi] again. We have heard through channels that they are sort of looking for an exit ramp from this situation.”