By Giselda Vagnoni and Khalid Abdel Aziz
ROME/KHARTOUM (Reuters) - A Sudanese woman who was sentenced to death for converting from Islam to Christianity, then detained after her conviction was quashed, flew into Rome on an Italian government plane on Thursday and hours later met the Pope. Mariam Yahya Ibrahim, whose 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 and two children 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 around half an hour, was intended as a "sign of closeness and solidarity for all those who suffer for their faith," he added.There were no details on what led up to the 27-year-old'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 a Christian South Sudanese-American.
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.
(Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino and Massimiliano Di Giorgio; Writing by Isla Binnie; Editing by Andrew Heavens)