ROME — A Catholic woman who has been receiving international attention for rejecting Islam despite facing a death sentence fled to Rome on Thursday and met with the Roman Catholic pontiff–a development that has raised concerns about the continued acceptance of Catholicism as Christianity.
As previously reported, Meriam Ibrahim, 27, was officially sentenced on May 15th after she was convicted of apostasy against Islam after she refused to convert from Roman Catholicism. Ibrahim was born to a Muslim father, but was raised by an Ethiopian Orthodox mother as the father left the home when Ibrahim was a child. In Sudan, children are expected to follow the religion of their fathers, and her father’s family had reportedly turned her into authorities for rejecting Islam.
Ibrahim was also sentenced to 100 lashes for allegedly committing “zena”—that is, having illegitimate sex by marrying a non-Muslim. The expectant mother married Daniel Wani in 2011, and the two have an 18-month old son together, along with a newborn baby girl. Sudanese law prohibits women from marrying non-Muslims, although men can marry whomever they wish without penalty.
Ibrahim was convicted of apostasy on May 11th for rejecting Islam and was given four days to recant, which would have saved her life. Unlike others who have faced similar sentences in Sudan, she refused to convert.
“We gave you three days to recant, but you insist on not returning to Islam,” Judge Abbas Khalifa told Ibrahim, as reported by the AFP. “I sentence you to be hanged to death.”
The court had also ruled that after Ibrahim gave birth—as she was pregnant at the time, she was to receive the 100 lashes, and would be permitted to nurse the child for two years before the execution would be carried out. In late May, Ibrahim delivered a baby girl in the hospital wing of the prison, who she named Maya. Initial reports relayed concerns that the child might have permanent injuries after being born in chains.
Amid international outcry, Ibrahim was released from prison last month, but when she sought to leave the country, she was again arrested. After being freed the second time, Ibrahim spent weeks being sheltered at the U.S. Embassy in Kharthoum until she was given permission to leave on Wednesday afternoon.
She was accompanied by her husband and children, along with Italy’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Lapo Pistelli, who flew to Sudan to bring her to Italy. Ibrahim landed in Rome early Thursday and traveled to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis at his residence.
The half-hour meeting with the pope was described by the Vatican as being “very serene and affectionate.” Francis laid hands on and “blessed” Ibrahim during the half-hour meeting, and also gifted her with a rosary.
“The pope thanked her for her witness to faith,” Vatican spokesman Priest Federico Lombardi stated.
According to the Catholic News Agency, “Ibrahim joined the Catholic Church in 2011 soon before she married her Catholic husband, Daniel Wani, at the Holy Family Chapel under St. Matthew Cathedral.”
Earlier this week, Bill Devlin of Infinity Bible Church in New York, who has a long history of uniting with Catholics, traveled to Sudan to meet with Ibrahim, offering to pay for her flight to the United States and house the Catholic family indefinitely in his home. The meeting was picked up by media outlets as the two posed for photographs.
“The Devlin family has offered to bring this family back to the USA from Khartoum and have them live with us,” he told reporters. “Furthermore, because of my long term friendship with the Foreign Minister of Sudan, I have met personally with him and asked him to advocate for this family, and have the Sudanese authorities release this family to me to bring them back to U.S.”
Tony Perkins of the Washington-based Christian organization Family Research Council likewise praised Ibrahim on Thursday in learning about her escape, counting her as a fellow Christian.
“It is our hope and prayer that Miriam and her family will now enjoy the liberty to practice their Christian faith without government interference or persecution,” he said. “Miriam’s bold stand for Jesus Christ as she faced death is both an inspiration for Christians to be courageous, but also a reminder of the vigilance required to preserve and promote not just our First Freedom as Americans, but the basic human right of the freedom of religion.”
But others, while being thankful that Ibrahim was able to escape Islamic oppression, are concerned that Ibrahim is being referred to as a Christian by the press and evangelicals alike. They state that it is creating the appearance of Catholicism as being accepted as Christianity, and sends confusing signals to those who are searching for the truth.
“We rejoice that the Sudanese woman Meriam Ibrahim was set free from her brutal ordeal of imprisonment and pending death for apostasy from the Muslim religion. However, we are concerned that many evangelical leaders are referring to her as a Christian when she is a devout Roman Catholic who refused to give up her Catholic faith for freedom,” Mike Gendron of Proclaiming the Gospel Ministries of Dallas, Texas told Christian News Network. “This is confusing for many evangelicals that look to their leaders for discernment.”
“The difference between the Catholic faith and the Christian faith is as wide as the chasm that separates heaven and hell,” he continued, noting Roman Catholicism’s works-based gospel, its doctrine of purgatory, its Eucharist teaching, its papal headship and its sacrament of baptismal regeneration, among other differences. “While the news of Meriam Ibrahim’s freedom is wonderful news, it is tragic news that she still remains in bondage to her religion. Only the truth of God’s word will set her free from that.”
Ibrahim is expected to travel to the United States in a few days, where she will reside with her husband, who lives in New Hampshire.