Pope meets Sudanese woman spared death for apostasy

Mariam Ibrahim has private meeting in Vatican, and is expected to go to US in days

Pope Francis blesses Mariam Yahya Ibrahim of Sudan and her baby during a private meeting at the Vatican today. photograph: Osservatore Romano/Reuters

Pope Francis blesses Mariam Yahya Ibrahim of Sudan and her baby during a private meeting at the Vatican today. photograph: Osservatore Romano/Reuters

Thu, Jul 24, 2014, 19:38

Pope Francis this morning had a private meeting with Sudanese Christian woman, Meriam Ibrahim and her family, in the Domus Santa Marta in the Vatican.

Ms Ibrahim, the 27-year-old woman who made international headlines in May when a Sudanese court sentenced her to death on charges of apostasy, or converting from Islam to Christianity, arrived in Rome this morning on an Italian government plane, following the quashing of her conviction earier this month.

On arrival at Rome’s Ciampino airport, Ms Ibrahim was greeted by Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi and foreign minister Federica Mogherini, who said that her safe passage to Rome was the result of “a huge amount of work done by many”. Among those organisations which helped with her exit from Sudan was the Italian human rights NGO Italians For Darfur.

In many senses, however, perhaps the most significant moment of this morning came when Ms Ibrahim was received by Pope Francis. The pontiff thanked Ms Ibrahim and her husband, Dani Wani, for their testimony of faith, a reference to Meriam’s refusal in court to renege her Christianity.

Speaking afterwards, senior papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the Pope had wanted to show his “closeness, concern and prayers” for all those who suffer for their faith, especially for persecuted Christians.

Although brought up an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian by her Orthodox mother, a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law argues that she is still a Muslim since her father was a Muslim. In that sense, the court ruled that she had committed aspostasy, or had abandoned her faith when she married her American husband in 2011.

When she refused to deny her faith in court, she was sentenced to a flogging and death for the crime of “adultery”. During her subsequent imprisonment, Ms Ibrahim was forced to give birth to the couple’s second child, Maya, chained to a prison table. Such were the primitive conditions of childbirth that Meriam and her family are worried that two-month-old Maya may have suffered lasting consequences and could even have problems walking.

After being released from prison at the beginning of this month, Ms Ibrahim, her husband Dani and their two children, one-and-a-half-year-old Martin and Maya, tried to leave Sudan for the US. But Sudanese police blocked the family in the VIP departure hall at Khartoum airport, re-arresting Miriam allegedly on a tip-off from her brother, with police arguing that her travel documents were out of order.

All four members of the Ibrahim family were present today at the audience with Pope Francis. It is anticipated that the family will not stay long in Rome but will shortly move on to the US.