Meriam Ibrahim and Family Escape to Italy, Greeted by the Pope

Rob Kerby | Contributor | Updated: Jul 24, 2014

Meriam Ibrahim and Family Escape to Italy, Greeted by the Pope

Dr. Meriam Ibrahim, the 27-year-old Sudanese pediatrician sentenced to death for refusing to renounce Christianity, has slipped out of Sudan on an Italian diplomatic aircraft.

Upon her early morning arrival in Rome, she was greeted in Rome by the Pope.

She and her wheelchair-bound American husband, Daniel Wani, and two small children had taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum.

The family drew international attention in May after the Sudanese government sentenced her to death by hanging for converting from Islam to Christianity. Though Dr. Ibrahim was raised in the Orthodox church by her mother, the Sudanese courts gave her 24 hours to renounce Christianity and embrace Islam since her father, who deserted the family 20 years ago, is Muslim.

The same court sentenced her to 100 lashes for having sexual relations with her husband, because Islamic law does not allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslims – although men may marry whomever they wish, regardless of religion.

A U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Wednesday focused on Dr. Ibrahim's situation with Republican Rep. Chris Smith saying: "We intend for this hearing to be a strong appeal to the government of Sudan to end the legal entanglements."

Dr. Ibrahim, her husband and her two children were accompanied on the flight by Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Lapo Pistelli, who posted a photo from the trip on his Facebook page, according to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. British newspapers showed him leaving the plane carrying Dr. Ibrahim’s 16-month-old son, Martin.

The boy and his two-month-old sister, Maya, who was born in prison with her mother’s feet shackled to the floor, are American citizens. So is their father, who made the flight in a wheelchair. He is unable to walk due to progressive muscular dystrophy.

Federica Mogherini, Italy's Foreign Affairs minister, met the plane at Rome’s CiampinoAirport and called the family’s arrival a "great joy," then thanked the "efforts of many" within the Italian government.

It wasn't immediately clear how the U.S. State Department was involved with her escape. The flight to Italy was provided by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's office. However, the family had been living in the U.S. embassy’s library to prevent Sudanese officials from serving papers charging her with a flood of legal charges, including forgery for using her Christian name instead of her legal Muslim first name.

Wednesday it was reported the European Parliament had passed a resolution on the case, condemning her "degrading and inhumane" treatment by Sudanese authorities. The resolution called for urgent legal reforms to protect fundamental human rights and guard against discrimination on gender or religious grounds.

Dr. Ibrahim’s harrowing journey began with her arrest in September 2013 before being found guilty of apostasy, sentenced to hang, and then giving birth to her second child while in irons in a Sudanese prison.

She was released on June 26, 2014, after an international outcry. Wednesday during the Congressional hearing on her case, subcommittee Chairman Chris Smith, R-N.J., declared, “Meriam Ibrahim Ishag has been imprisoned in Sudan in fear of execution, chained during the late stages of her pregnancy, forced to give birth in prison, released from prison and re-arrested on flimsy charges.

“This all is the result of her being Christian in a country in which the ruling authorities refuse to recognize the right of people to choose their own religion. Our hearing will examine this troubling violation of a basic human right.”

Her family had been given refuge in the U.S. Embassy since she is entitled to eventual U.S. citizenship as the wife and mother of American citizens. In the embassy, she could not be served with papers from civil lawsuits that Muslim religious officials were generating, accusing her of apostasy, perjury, adultery, and even fraud for trying to leave the country last month with South Sudanese papers.

Her husband is a native of South Sudan, a predominantly Christian country which split off from Islamic Sudan in 2011 after decades of genocide. Entire villages of Christians would be murdered in the night by roving Muslim militia with survivors sold into slavery. Thousands of youngsters, the “lost boys of Sudan” made 1,000-mile treks through the desert to safety in Uganda and Kenya, telling horror stories of watching their fathers being tortured and killed, their mothers and sisters captured and their villages burned.

On Wednesday, before Dr. Ibrahim’s family escaped to Italy, the pediatrician’s “plight is not over,” wrote Ashe Schow for the Washington Examiner.Last week, a lawsuit filed against her by her family seeking to prove she was a Muslim was dropped, and a second lawsuit was filed trying to annul her marriage to U.S. citizen Daniel Wani. The lawsuits are an attempt by her family to keep Dr. Ibrahim in Sudan and exact punishment on her for supposedly leaving Islam.”

The U.S. Department of State told World Watch Monitorthat “the Government of Sudan has assured us of the family’s continued safety. It went on to say in an e-mail, ‘The Department of Homeland Security has informed us that Ms. Ishag [Meriam Ibrahim] and her children have all the documents they need to enter the United States as soon as the Government of Sudan allows them to exit the country.’”

Other good news for the family was reported by the UK’s Daily Mail: her baby girl, Mayan, was not injured, despite being born while her mother was shackled to the floor.

At the Vatican on Thursday, Pope Francis thanked Dr. Ibrahim for her steadfast witness to Christ, according to Carol Glatz of the Catholic News Service.“The pope spent 30 minutes with Ibrahim, her husband and two small children. Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told journalists that the encounter in the pope's residence was marked by ‘affection’ and ‘great serenity and joy.’

“They had ‘a beautiful conversation,’” reported Glatz, during which the pope thanked Dr. Ibrahim for "her steadfast witness of faith,"  Lombardi said.

Dr. Ibrahim thanked the pope for the church's prayers and support during her plight, Lombardi said. Although raised in the Orthodox church, Dr. Ibrahim joined the Roman Catholic church before marrying her husband, who is Catholic.

The Vatican spokesman said the meeting was a sign of the pope's "closeness, solidarity and presence with all those who suffer for their faith," adding that Dr. Ibrahim's ordeal “has come to represent the serious challenges many people face in living out their faith.”

The informal conversation also touched upon the family's plans now that Dr. Ibrahim is free, he said. The pope gave the family a few small gifts, including papal rosaries.

Pistelli told reporters at Rome's Ciampino airport that they had left Khartoum at 3:30 a.m. and spent most of the flight sleeping. However, he said, when awake, Martin, the 2-year-old, "practically dismantled the plane."

The president of the group Italians for Darfur, Antonella Napoli, helped organize Dr. Ibrahim's visit with the pope.

"Meriam will achieve her dream and see the pope. I had promised her that when we met," Napoli tweeted before Dr. Ibrahim's encounter with the pontiff.

The family is scheduled to stay in Rome for a few days before heading to New York.

Publication Date: July 24, 2014

Meriam Ibrahim and Family Escape to Italy, Greeted by the Pope