Meriam Ibrahim free at last, while pastor McConnell hails her release

In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis meets Meriam Ibrahim and her daughter Maya
In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis meets Meriam Ibrahim and her daughter Maya

The Christian woman who refused to recant her faith in the face of a death sentence and was forced to give birth in prison while shackled has reached freedom.

Sudanese mother Meriam Ibrahim — whose brutal treatment lead to protests around the world, including in Northern Ireland — finally escaped Sudan and reached Italy.

Pastor James McConnell

Pastor James McConnell

Meriam, pictured with her daughter born in prison, said that she believed the child was disabled as a result of the chains which bound her as she gave birth.

Yesterday Meriam met with the Pope in the Vatican.

Meanwhile, controversial Belfast pastor James McConnell, who used a sermon about Meriam’s plight to say that he did not trust Muslims, last night claimed that his stance has been vindicated by recent world events.

He told the News Letter that a recent government report into Islamic extremists infiltrating British schools proved his point.

Pastor McConnell, who last month apologised for his initial comments after seeing one of the pastors in his church quit in protest, said: “I feel I have been justified.”

When Pope Francis and Meriam met, the Pontiff blessed the woman as she cradled her infant, born just weeks ago in prison.

The Vatican characterised the visit with Meriam, 27, her husband and their two small children as “very affectionate”.

The 30-minute encounter took place just hours after the family landed at Rome’s Ciampino airport, accompanied by an Italian diplomat who helped negotiate her release.

Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi said the Pope “thanked her for her faith and courage, and she thanked him for his prayer and solidarity” during the half-hour meeting.

Lombardi said the presence of “their wonderful small children” added to the affectionate tone of the meeting.

Ms Ibrahim held her sleeping infant as she stepped off the plane from Sudan, which had blocked her from leaving the country even after the country’s highest court overturned her death sentence in June.

An Italian diplomat carried her 18-month-old son and they were followed by her husband, Daniel Wani, who is a citizen of the United States and South Sudan.

Ms Ibrahim, whose father was Muslim but whose mother was an Orthodox Christian from Ethiopia, was sentenced to death over charges of apostasy (the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief). Both the US and Italy worked to win her release. Sudan’s high court threw out her death sentence in June, but she was then blocked from leaving the country by authorities who questioned the validity of her travel documents.

Lapo Pistelli, an Italian diplomat who accompanied the family from Sudan, said: “We had the patience to speak to everyone in a friendly way. This paid off in the end.”

Meanwhile, commenting yesterday on news that Meriam Ibrahim had been freed, controversial north Belfast preacher Pastor James McConnell said: “I am delighted about that, because that’s what [the original controversy] was all about”.

He had come under fire earlier this year for calling the Islamic faith “Satanic”, and saying that Muslim people cannot be trusted.

He added: “They (Sudanese authorities) really stretched it like chewing gum to hold on to her. She was in the American embassy for a lot of days, and then she got to the airport but they arrested her and brought her back.

“Our church prayed for her constantly but they’re praying for other people who are being persecuted. People are actually being crucified, hands are being cut off ... all sorts of mutilations”.

He said other developments vindicated his anti-Islam stance too, citing the finding that some schools in Birmingham had been subject to infiltration by Islamic hardliners.

“I feel I have been justified,” he said.

“Look what has happened in Birmingham with the schools, and these are school governors, school principals and school teachers as well, that are teaching all this. They are infiltrating Islam doctrine into the schools – teaching ordinary English pupils Islam doctrine – and that is what is causing the problem in Birmingham.”