ROME/KHARTOUM - A Sudanese woman who was sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith, then detained after her conviction was quashed, flew into Rome on an Italian government plane on Thursday and hours later met with Pope Francis.
Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, whose conviction for apostasy, sentence and detention triggered international outrage, walked off the aircraft cradling her baby and was greeted by Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi.
Soon afterwards, Ibrahim, her husband Daniel Wani, and their two children - Martin, 18 months, and Maya, two months, had a private meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican.
"The Pope thanked her for her witness to faith," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.
The meeting, which lasted about half an hour, was intended as a "sign of closeness and solidarity for all those who suffer for their faith," he added.
"Wonderful news that Meriam Ibrahim and her family were finally able to leave Sudan and are safely in Italy," U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, tweeted after the news broke.
"Great news that Meriam and her family have safely left Sudan," U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said in her tweet. "Hope they're back in the U.S. soon."
U.S. Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter also hailed the news.
"I thank the State Department for keeping the pressure on Sudan and securing a successful result, and my colleagues in Congress who I worked with to achieve Meriam's release. I am proud the United States remains a bastion of religious freedom in the face of such terrible oppression," she said in a prepared release.
Ayotte and Shaheen also worked with the State Department for months to secure Ibrahim's freedom after she was jailed and sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy by a Sudanese court. In June, when the conviction was overturned and she was released from prison, she was then barred from leaving the country. She and her family sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum.
"We're relieved that Meriam and her family have finally been allowed to leave Sudan and travel to safety in Rome, and we're delighted that they were welcomed by Pope Francis," the senators said in a joint statement. "No one should be persecuted for exercising their right of religious freedom, and Meriam's unwavering faith and determination in the face of danger are an inspiration to us all."
The senators said they appreciated the collaborative international effort led by the State Department, the U.S. embassy in Khartoum and "our international partners, including the Italians, that reunited the family. We'll continue to assist the family as needed."
The spokesmen for the elected representatives did not know when the family will be back in the United States.
A source told the New Hamsphire Union Leader that the U.S. embassy in Italy is working on making flight arrangements for the family, who are reportedly tired and want to return home as soon as possible. It's expected they should be back by weekend's end.
There were no details on what led up to Ibrahim's departure after a month in limbo in Khartoum, but a senior Sudanese official said it had been cleared by the government.
"The authorities did not prevent her departure that was known and approved in advance," the senior official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Ibrahim was accompanied on the plane by Italy's vice minister for foreign affairs, Lapo Pistelli. He told journalists at Ciampino airport that Italy had been in "constant dialogue" with Sudan but did not give any more details on Rome's role in securing her exit.
He published a photograph on his Facebook page of himself with Ibrahim and her two children on the plane with the caption: "A couple of minutes away from Rome. Mission accomplished."
Ibrahim was sentenced to death in May on charges of converting from Islam to Christianity and marrying Christian South Sudanese-American Daniel Wani of Manchester, N.H.
In good health
Her conviction was quashed last month but Sudan's government accused her of trying to leave the country with falsified papers, preventing her departure for the United States with her husband and two children.
She was initially detained, then released and moved into the U.S. embassy in Khartoum.
Pistelli told reporters at the airport that the family was in good health and would stay in Italy for a few days before leaving for the United States.
The minister, who carried one of Ibrahim's young children off the plane, said he expected her to have "some important meetings" during her time in Italy.
Ibrahim says she was born and raised as a Christian by an Ethiopian family in Sudan and later abducted by a Sudanese Muslim family.
The Muslim family denies that and filed a lawsuit to have her marriage annulled last week in a new attempt to stop her leaving the country. That case was later dropped.
Prime Minister Renzi mentioned Ibrahim's case in his speech to inaugurate Italy's six-month European Union presidency earlier this month.
"If there is no European reaction we cannot feel worthy to call ourselves 'Europe'," Renzi said.
Apostasy is punishable by death in many countries' interpretation of Islamic law.