Rome — Mariam Ibraheem Ishag, a Christian woman whose death sentence in Sudan for refusing to renounce her faith set off an international protest, arrived in Rome on Thursday morning to a hero’s welcome and a private audience with Pope Francis.
The pope spent a half-hour speaking with Ms. Ishag; her husband, Daniel Wani, who is an American citizen; and their two young children, Maya, born in prison just days after Ms. Ishag’s conviction two months ago for apostasy, and Martin, a toddler. Apostasy carries a death sentence in Sudan, where President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has imposed Islamic law.
Pope Francis thanked Ms. Ishag for her “courageous witness to perseverance in the faith,” in the face of possible death, the Vatican Radio reported. In turn, the young woman thanked the pope “for the great support and comfort she received from his prayers and from so many others believers of good will,” the Vatican said in a statement.
With this gesture, “Pope Francis desired to show his closeness, attention and prayer also to all those who suffer for their faith, in particular to Christians who are enduring persecution or limitations imposed upon their religious freedom,” the Vatican statement said.
The pope has spoken out repeatedly about the plight of Christian communities whose religious freedom is being threatened, in recent days highlighting the trials of Christians in the Middle East and in Mosul, Iraq, threatened with death by Islamic militants unless they convert.
Ms. Ishag became the focus of global headlines in May when a court in the overwhelmingly Muslim country sentenced her to death on charges of apostasy. Her father was a Muslim, but she had been raised by her Christian mother and had joined the Catholic Church shortly before marrying her Christian husband in a church ceremony in 2011.
The sentence unleashed international outrage, and efforts to free Ms. Ishag were begun on various fronts: via diplomats, human rights groups and through the public opinion. A court eventually overturned the sentence and last month released Ms. Ishag, who in the meantime had given birth to her second child while in prison.
Appearing tired but serene, the family landed in Rome on Thursday morning traveling on an Italian government plane, accompanied by Lapo Pistelli, the deputy foreign minister, who had flown to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, on Wednesday after getting word that Ms. Ishag’s travel documents had been approved. The family had been living at the American Embassy there after an unsuccessful attempt to leave the country in June.
In a televised news conference from the airport, Mr. Pistelli thanked the Sudanese authorities for allowing the family to travel to Rome. “Italy has friendly relations with everyone in the Horn of Africa, and in this case, we had the patience to speak with everyone on friendly terms,” Mr. Pistelli said. “In the end, this paid off.”
The Italian government had taken the case to heart.
In his speech to inaugurate Italy’s six-month presidency of the European Union this month, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi singled out Ms. Ishag’s case and called for a unified European diplomatic reaction. Greeting the family in Rome on Thursday, Mr. Renzi said it was a “day of celebration.”
Ms. Ishag and her family will remain in Italy for a few days before continuing to the United States.