In just the space of a few hours July 24, Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag had tasted freedom, arriving in Rome from Sudan, and then met Pope Francis privately at the Vatican.
The 27-year-old Sudanese Christian doctor landed at Rome’s Ciampino Airport around 9:30am on an Italian military plane.
By one 1pm, she and her family, escorted by Italian government officials, had arrived at the Pope’s St. Martha residence, where they spent half an hour in conversation.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said in a statement that the Pope “thanked Meriam and her family for their courageous witness and constancy of faith.” For her part, Ibrahim “expressed gratitude to the Pope for the great support and comfort she received from his prayers and from so many other believers of goodwill.”
Father Lombardi said they had a “beautiful conversation,” which was marked by “affection” and “great serenity and joy.” He added that the Holy Father wanted their meeting “to show his closeness, attention and prayer also to all those who suffer for their faith, in particular to Christians who are enduring persecution or limitations imposed upon their religious freedom.”
The informal conversation covered the future of women in Sudan and touched upon the family’s plans now that she is free. The Pope gave Ibrahim and her family — husband Daniel Wani and two children, 2-year-old Martin and 2-month-old Maya — a few small gifts, including papal rosaries. Coptic Catholic Father Yohannis Lahzi Gaid, the Pope’s personal secretary, served as an interpreter.
Born to a Muslim father and Ethiopian Orthodox mother, Ibrahim was sentenced to death in May by a Sudanese court for the “apostasy” of marrying a Christian. She was also charged with committing adultery, since her marriage to a Christian cannot be recognized under sharia (Islamic law).
Ibrahim protested that her father left the family at an early age, so she had never been a Muslim and was raised a Christian — a fact backed up by the Archdiocese of Khartoum. Her father claimed she had abandoned Islam and committed adultery with her Christian husband.
Forced to give birth to a baby girl while in shackles, Meriam has said in a previous interview with Italian journalist Antonella Napoli that she never came close to renouncing her faith.
After her release June 23, following intense international pressure, she was barred from leaving the country the next day; she was apprehended at Khartoum Airport, along with her family. They eventually sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy to Sudan before the Italian government secured her release and flew her to Rome. Ibrahim’s case has helped draw attention to systematic human-rights abuses in Sudan, including severe restrictions on religious freedom.
According to The Telegraph, Ibrahim was told late July 23 that she was leaving Sudan, but she had no idea what her destination was. “She had very little time,” said Elshareef Ali Mohammed, her lawyer, who had been trying to secure his client’s freedom since she was arrested in December.
Ibrahim was accompanied from Khartoum by Italy’s deputy foreign minister, Lapo Pistelli. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife, Agnese, were among those present to welcome the Wani-Ibrahim family on their arrival.
“Today, we are happy; this is a day of celebration,” Pistelli said.
“This gesture by Sudan is testimony to the friendship between our country and Italy’s choice to be a protagonist in this event,” said Pistelli, who added that the mother and children were in excellent health.
Although Ibrahim mentioned in a recent interview that she wished to meet the Pope, few expected her to visit Rome so soon and to meet the Holy Father almost immediately after arrival. Much has to do with Italy’s relationship with Sudan. Sudan’s ambassador to Rome, Amira Daoud Hassan Gornass, said Ibrahim’s arrival was due to the “great friendship between Italy and Sudan” and the mutual respect between the two countries.
Pistelli first met the mother of two 14 days previously, at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum. Her passport, which had been confiscated after she was barred from leaving the country for not having the right documents, was only returned July 23; then she was informed she could leave.
“While we were doing the final procedures, she did not even know if she would be able to go,” Pistelli said, according to The Telegraph.
Upon leaving Rome, Ibrahim expected to travel to the home of her husband in New Hampshire in the coming days, where family and friends were preparing a welcoming party.
“I have just spoken to Daniel briefly by phone so far, and he is very excited and very happy,” said his brother Gabriel Wani. “We don’t know yet when they’ll be coming back here, but we hope it’s soon, and we’re ready to welcome Daniel back and to welcome Meriam and their children to their new home.”