Christian Meriam Ibrahim Meets Pope Francis After Escaping Sudan

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ROME - A mother put on death row for refusing to reject Christianity met Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday, just hours after she fled Sudan.

Meriam Ibrahim was flown out of the country with her American husband and two young children. She was blessed by the pontiff during a private audience and is expected to fly onto the United States in the next few days.

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After an almost year-long ordeal that triggered outrage around the world, the State Department had been negotiating with Sudanese officials for weeks to secure the family's safe passage out of the country. Ibrahim, 27, has been sheltered at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum for almost a month.

Ibrahim was heavily pregnant when she was jailed in February after a member of the Muslim side of her family told authorities she had recently converted from Islam to marry her Christian husband. That crime is punishable by death under Sudan’s strict Islamic law. She argued that her Muslim father had abandoned the family when she was six and that she was raised by her Orthodox Christian mother and then married Daniel Wani, who lives in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Ibrahim was sentenced to death and 100 lashes after she refused to renounce Christianity when given the opportunity in court. She was forced to take her 20-month-old son into her cell and gave birth to her second child, Maya, while her legs were in shackles.

She was sentenced to death under the country’s strict Islamic laws, known as Shariah, which were imposed in the 1980s. These have been used sporadically, however, and no one has been put to death for apostasy in the country since 1985.

Ibrahim's sentence drew outrage from the international community and she was freed last month. However, Sudan’s secret police thwarted the family’s attempts to fly to the United States by re-arresting her at the airport.

The State Department has been negotiating with Sudanese officials to secure the family’s safe passage out of the country. It was not immediately clear how or why her flight to Italy was secured.

Wani was born in what is now South Sudan -- but later moved to the U.S. He and Ibrahim met after he traveled to Khartoum in 2011. After her release, Wani said he wanted to build a new life for his family in America.