Pope Francis has met with a Sudanese woman sentenced to death for her religion and later freed. Meriam Ibrahim and her family are expected to spend a few days in Rome before heading to the United States.
Stepping off the plane Thursday, Meriam Ibrahim, 26, held her infant daughter, born in prison less than two months ago. Lapo Pistelli, Italy's vice minister for foreign affairs, carried her 18-month-old son. Sudan-born US citizen Daniel Wani, Ibrahim's husband and the children's father, followed close behind.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who greeted the family at Ciampino along with his wife and Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, hailed Ibrahim's arrival, calling Thursday a "day of celebration."
Vatican spokesman the Reverend Federico Lombardi said Pope Francis "thanked her for her faith and courage, and she thanked him for his prayer and solidarity." Lombardi added that the presence of "their wonderful small children" added to the celebratory nature of the meeting.
Francis frequently calls attention to the suffering of those persecuted for their religious beliefs. On Thursday, the pope presented Ibrahim with a rosary.
Escaping Sudan alive
Less than a month ago, the visit would have seemed impossible. Born to a Muslim father who abandoned the family and raised by her mother, an Orthodox Christian from Ethiopia, Ibrahim had received a death sentence over charges of apostasy for marrying Wani in a church ceremony in 2011.
Though men marry as they please, Sudan prohibits Muslim women from taking husbands outside their faith - a religion Ibrahim legally inherited from her absent father, but never practiced. The court also sentenced Ibrahim to 100 lashings, considering her union with a non-Muslim adultery.
Amnesty International, the US, the UN and several other nations and organizations had condemned the death sentence. Sudan's high court threw out her death sentence in June, but authorities blocked her from leaving, calling into question the validity of travel documents issued by the US Embassy in neighboring South Sudan. After the family took refuge in the US Embassy in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, Pistelli said Italy leveraged its ties within the region to secure her release.
"We had the patience to speak to everyone in a friendly way," Pistelli said. "This paid off in the end."
(Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)