After intense negotiations between the Sudanese government and diplomats from the U.S, Italy and the Vatican, 27-year-old Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag landed in Rome on Thursday morning with her husband and two children, one of whom was born two months ago while Ibrahim was still shackled to a jail cell in Khartoum.
Ibrahim won reprieve from the Sudanese government after being sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy after she left Islam and converted to Christianity. She was also sentenced to 100 lashes for “zena” or having sex with a non-Muslim. Ibrahim’s mother was Christian, but Sudan’s sharia laws dictate that because her father is Muslim, she is too. Ibrahim’s father has even petitioned the Khartoum government to have his daughter’s marriage to Daniel Wani, a Christian with an American passport, annulled.
After global outrage and pressure on Sudan, Ibrahim’s death sentence was reversed and she was allowed to leave, though she was briefly detained on charges that she was traveling on false documents. Because she feared for her safety after her father’s personal death threats, she sought shelter in the American embassy in Khartoum until her travel arrangements to Rome were secured.
Italy’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Lapo Pistelli flew in an Italian state aircraft to collect Ibrahim and her family on Wednesday night. As their flight descended into Rome early this morning, he posted a picture on his Facebook page, saying, “mission accomplished.” At the airport, Pistelli told reporters, “This gesture by Sudan is testimony to the friendship between our country and Italy’s choice to be a protagonist in this event.”
The entourage was met at Rome’s airport by Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, who spoke of Ibrahim’s case to the European Union last week. “Today we are happy,” Renzi said as he greeted Ibrahim and her family. The negotiations had been kept secret until Ibrahim left Sudan.
Antonella Napoli, president of the NGO Italians for Darfur, said Italy played a major role in her release. “It is the end of the nightmare for Meriam and her family,” Napoli said at the airport. “Yesterday afternoon when I had confirmation that Meriam would be coming to Italy, it was the best day of my life.”
Once in Rome, Ibrahim and her family met with Pope Francis for half an hour in the Santa Marta house where he lives inside Vatican City. Ibrahim reportedly spoke of her dream to meet the pope if she were ever free. The pontiff thanked her for her persistent faith. According to a Vatican press office communiqué, “The Pope thanked Meriam and her family for their courageous witness and constancy of faith. For her part, Meriam expressed gratitude to the Pope for the great support and comfort she received from his prayers and from so many others believers of good will.”
President Barack Obama was criticized last month for not intervening in Ibrahim’s case since she has legal rights as the wife of an American citizen. At the time, State department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters that even though Ibrahim’s husband is American, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) requires proof of his paternity of her children. “To transmit U.S. citizenship to a child born abroad, there must be, among other requirements, a biological relationship between the child and a U.S. citizen parent or parents,” she said. “Genetic testing is a useful tool for verifying a biological relationship.”
On Wednesday, before Ibrahim’s transfer to Rome was announced, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council lambasted the American government in front of a U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the matter. “What has America done? Where is the courage in America?” he asked according to transcripts of the hearing. “While other governments have called attention to Meriam’s situation, including the European parliament passing a resolution and the British government’s prime minister speaking out publicly, the U.S. government has been practically mute. The U.S. government’s disinterest in the plight of an American and his family is simply indefensible.”
Ibrahim and her family will stay in Rome for an undisclosed amount of time before making their way to the United States where Ibrahim has reportedly been given a temporary visa until she can apply for citizenship through her marriage.