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Christian woman sentenced to death for apostasy arrives in Italy

Lydia TomkiwThe Christian Science Monitor

In what became an international cause célèbre, Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman sentenced to death on charges of apostasy, arrived in Italy today with her two children and her American husband.

Italy along with the US played a role in helping with Ms. Ibrahim's release and in Rome she met the Italian prime minister and spent a half hour with Pope Francis who commended her faith and courage in the face of persecution. 

Ms. Ibrahim was imprisoned in February while pregnant with her second child on the grounds that her husband is a Christian. They married in 2011. According to Ibrahim, her father, a Muslim, abandoned his family and she was raised Christian by her Ethiopian mother.

Under a Sudanese interpretation of Islamic law, Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslims and since Ibrahim’s father was Muslim, she was also considered Muslim. Ibrahim refused to convert back to Islam and faced death by hanging.

The case drew international condemnation as details of Ibrahim plight became known: A young mother sentenced to death and 100 lashes for adultery, imprisoned with her young son, and forced to give birth to her second child while wearing shackles in prison. Ibrahim's husband, Daniel Wani, is a resident of New Hampshire, having fled southern Sudan during its protracted civil war. 

In recent months the United States, the United Nations, and Amnesty International all issued calls for her release that gained global support. Amnesty researcher Manar Idriss wrote: 

“The fact that a woman could be sentenced to death for her religious choice, and to flogging for being married to a man of an allegedly different religion, is abhorrent and should never be even considered.” 

Twitter campaigns were launched and celebrities and politicians weighed in. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron described Ibrahim’s treatment as “barbaric and has no place in today’s world.”

Ibrahim’s conviction was overturned in June. But when she and her family tried to leave Sudan, the government alleged she had fake travel documents. She eventually stayed in the US embassy in Khartoum with her family. 

An Italian diplomat said today that Italy used its regional ties to help Ibrahim leave Sudan, “We had the patience to speak to everyone in a friendly way. This paid off in the end.”

In Italy en route to the US, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi met the family and declared, “Today is a day of celebration.”

A Vatican spokesman told the Associated Press that the Pope “thanked her for her faith and courage, and she thanked him for his prayer and solidarity” while also highlighting the plight of others suffering from religious persecution.

Ibrahim’s case provoked discussion of religious freedom around the world. Sudan’s version of sharia law was imposed in the 1980s; 1985 was the last time a person was put to death for apostasy.