The Inside Story Of How Italy Saved A Sudanese Woman Sentenced To Die For Converting To Christianity

CREDIT: AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca

Meriam Ibrahim, from Sudan, disembarks with her children Maya, in her arms, and Martin, accompanied by Italian deputy Foreign Minister Lapo Pistelli

In May, Meriam Ibrahim Ishaq was told that she would die for her beliefs. Last Thursday, Ibrahim met with Pope Francis in the Vatican, a free woman with a newborn baby in her arms. In between, Ibrahim — a Sudanese woman convicted of apostasy after converting from Islam to Christianity — and her plight captured the world’s attention, with international outcry against her pending execution. After giving birth while in chains, it appeared that Ibrahim would be allowed to leave for the United States, where her husband is a naturalized citizen. But when she attempted to do, she was re-arrested and the Sudanese government claimed she possessed forged documents.

Until last week, Ibrahim was housed in the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, unsure of when she’d be able to escape. That all changed on Thursday when she appeared suddenly disembarking from an Italian government airplane in Rome. “Today, we breathe a collective sigh of relief at the news that Ms. Ishag has been finally allowed to leave Sudan,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said in a statement released that day. “She has gone from facing execution to meeting with the Pope, and she has become a symbol for all who suffer for their faith around the world. We look forward to welcoming Ms. Ishag to the United States.”

ThinkProgress was able to get in touch with one of the primary architects of Ibrahim’s flight, Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Lapo Pistelli. In an email exchange, Pistelli provided some of the backstory to Ibrahim’s escape and how she and her family are doing now. [Ed. note: Some of Pistelli’s answers have been edited slightly for clarity in English.]

In the case of Meriam Ibrahim, we have a woman married to an American citizen in Sudan, who managed to fly out on an Italian plane. What made the Italian government choose to get involved in this case?

Italy is traditionally a Catholic country and the media system had been following the whole story from the very beginning. More than that, Italy has fair and good relations with Sudan. We are very active in terms of foreign aid and development, and it is a relationship where we are closely following the issues of Darfur, Blue Nile and Kordofan and the dialogue for national reconciliation. In other words, we talk to them in a world where nobody — or only a few — is talking to them. Diplomacy is required in difficult circumstances. When and where everything is quiet and smooth, you don’t need diplomacy.

Reports from after Ibrahim left Sudan indicate that Rome had been in constant dialogue with Khartoum, starting about two weeks out from her leaving. Can you give any details on what that dialogue entailed and what, if anything, Sudan wanted in return for her leaving?

I visited the country at the beginning of July and I understood that this story had become a big headache for everybody, after the failed attempt of Meriam to leave the country. We discreetly offered our mediation and that was appreciated both by the U.S. and by the Government of Sudan. If you are able to build up a win-win strategy, you don’t need to add a supplementary “benefit.”

This case of apostasy was the only one brought to a Court in the last 25 years in Sudan. That damaged a lot the image of the country, which is far from being brilliant. Let me just tell you that there was some resistance in some parts of the elite, but those who wanted to solve the case in the end prevailed.

You were on-board the flight with Ibrahim to Rome. Can you describe what the feeling on the plane was like? Were all members of the family in good health?

They were at the same time very tired and very thrilled. We didn’t tell them anything until the very last moment, as so not to repeat the previous attempt. They understood that they were leaving the country when they realized being at the airport and they saw the State plane with the sign “Repubblica Italiana.”

We took good care of them, the parents and the kids, during the flight. Martin, the 18 months old boy, was so excited. They are in good health.

Have you been in touch with Ibrahim and her family much since their visit to the Vatican? If so, can you describe how they’re doing in Italy?

The private visit to the Holy Father was the perfect culmination of that big day. Pope Francis was very kind and so sympathetic. He underlined the bravery of Meriam as a symbol for standing up for religious freedom.

And is there a firm date yet when they’ll emigrate to the US?

The family is on the way to leave, now. It’s a question of hours. [She and her family will be traveling to New Hampshire to live after visiting Washington, DC to thank some of her supporters.]

This is clearly a high profile example, but apostasy remains a crime in Sudan. Do you see this as a one-time situation, or will Italy continue to act as an intermediary to get those convicted out of the country?

The Sudanese Government is truly thinking about rewriting Constitution and Penal Code where those instruments make reference to apostasy. Sudan is a complex country, but many high authorities fully understand that they’re paying a price which is much higher than needed. In some neighbouring countries, in the Middle East, in the Gulf, religious freedom suffers a much worse situation. Therefore, we will work hard to let the “second miracle” happen, to let Christians be free to believe.