Photo: Vatican Radio
In a welcome but surprise development Meriam Ibrahim, a Christian Sudanese mother condemned to death for alleged apostasy from Islam, has arrived in Rome with her family.
Meriam stepped off a plane yesterday carrying her baby daughter, Maya, born in prison in May, and accompanied by Lapo Pistelli, Italy’s vice-minister for foreign affairs, who carried her 20-month-old son Martin. Meriam’s husband, Daniel Wani, is disabled and uses a wheelchair.
The BBC’s Rome correspondent says there was no prior indication of Italy’s involvement in the case. However, it makes sense that, once the case became an international issue, the task of negotiating with Khartoum would fall to Italy, with its colonial legacy in the Horn of Africa and its continuing interest in the region.
Meriam and her family were greeted at the airport by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who said it was “a day of celebration,” and the family was then taken to meet Pope Francis at his residence in the Vatican. The Pope thanked her warmly for her “witness to perseverance in the Faith” said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi. He added that the meeting, which lasted around half an hour, was intended to show “closeness and solidarity for all those who suffer for their faith.”
After her official death sentence (to be preceded by flogging for adultery – i.e., marrying a Christian) was overturned last month and she was released from prison with her children, Meriam tried to leave Sudan for the US with her family, using South Sudan travel documents obtained by her husband, Mr Wani, who is from South Sudan and is a US citizen.
But a squad of officials arrested her, declaring her documents “fake”. She was then released into the custody of the US embassy in Khartoum, where the family spent the past month, sleeping in the library. Although she is reported to be sad at leaving her country, there are deaths threats against her there, including from her Muslim father’s family. The family will settle in the US.
The question now is, what about the other Meriams?
Mr Pistelli, who helped negotiate her departure, seems optimistic as far as Sudan goes. He told Vatican Radio:
This has been possible because the dialogue with the political authorities in Khartoum has been very fair and very open. [They] were well aware that we were helping them to get the job done. We were helping them to modify their image vis-a-vis the world and one very true sentence the Prime Minister told me before giving to me the family and before taking off was that they had to rethink their constitutions and their penal code and it’s highly likely that the issue of apostasy will be modified and deleted.
At the end of the day, in Sudan this has been the only case in the last 25 years — so I’m more worried from now on about the Christians in the Middle East, In Iraq, in Syria, and Lebanon because I think this is a real, never-ending battle for their freedom to believe.
Certainly there is a huge crisis at the moment for Christian men and women in those countries, but the claim that Meriam’s is the only apostasy case in 25 years of Sharia rule in Sudan seems a little suspect. Morning Star News, A Coptic Christian site, has reported another case recently:
Another woman raised as a Christian and falsely accused of apostasy in Sudan has been released after she recanted when threatened with the death sentence last month, sources told Morning Star News. Authorities had detained Faiza Abdalla, 37, in the town of El Gadarif on Sudan’s eastern border with Ethiopia, on April 2 as she was trying to obtain her identification number at an official building.
Immigration/Citizenship police questioned her about her religion and arrested her on suspicion of leaving Islam. She is the mother of eight children.
Mr Pistelli says that one of the officials he dealt with in Khartoum told him that in the Holy Quran there is a sura that says “there is no conversion with coercion”. But it has taken a 27-year-old woman to prove to her country that not even the severest coercion will break some courageous spirits.
We can only hope that others will follow Meriam’s lead, convincing oppressive religious regimes that freedom in matters of faith is the most precious freedom of all. But if her case teaches us anything, it is that the rest of the world has to defend religious freedom too, and shame any authority – yes, any authority – that dares to violate it.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.