ROME - A Sudanese Christian woman whose death sentence for renouncing Islam sparked a global outcry that eventually led to an acquittal, met Pope Francis after arriving in Italy en route to the United States.
Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag and her family were received by the Argentine pontiff at his home for a 30-minute meeting Thursday in which he thanked her for her "courageous testament of faith" and her "tenacity", the Vatican said in a statement.
Ishag and her American husband Daniel Wani in turn thanked Francis for the "great support and comfort" they had taken from "the pope's and many other believers' prayers".
The meeting was "a sign of closeness and solidarity for all those who suffer for their faith, in particular Christians who suffer persecution", the Vatican added.
The 77-year-old pope gave Ishag rosary beads after an "affectionate and warm" chat about her plans in the United States, where she is expected to fly with her family in a few days' time, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
The White House in Washington said it was "delighted" Ishaq is now "safe and free and will soon be traveling to the United States".
"For months, Americans of all faiths kept Ms Ishag in their thoughts and prayers as Sudanese authorities sentenced her to death for the alleged crime of apostasy," read a statement released by President Barack Obama's national security adviser Susan Rice.
"Today, she and her family have left Sudan on their journey to freedom. Her departure with her immediate family - including her infant daughter, born in custody - is a testament to her unyielding faith and the support she received from friends and allies, including our Embassy in Khartoum and the broader US government," Rice said.
"We look forward to the day when they arrive in America." The statement thanked the Italian government for its efforts on Ishag's behalf.
'A day of celebration'
The family flew into a military airport in Rome early Thursday and were greeted by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife, as well as Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini.
"Today is a day of celebration," Renzi said.
Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Lapo Pistelli, who accompanied the family on the flight to Rome, tweeted a photo of the young mother aboard the plane cradling her infant daughter as her toddler son drank from a bottle.
"Mission accomplished," he wrote.
A global outcry erupted in May after Ishag was sentenced under Sharia law to hang for apostasy.
Days after her conviction, the 26-year-old gave birth to a second child in prison.
Ishag's conviction was overturned in June, but she was immediately rearrested while trying to leave Sudan using what prosecutors claimed were forged documents.
Two days later, Ishag was released from prison and she and her family - including her American husband Daniel Wani and the two infant children - took refuge in the US embassy.
Ishag was born to a Muslim father who abandoned the family, and was raised by her Ethiopian Orthodox Christian mother. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Khartoum says Ishaq joined the Catholic Church shortly before she married in 2011.
She was convicted under Islamic Sharia law that has been in force in Sudan since 1983, and that says Muslim conversion to another faith is punishable by death.
The court had also sentenced her to 100 lashings because under Sharia law it considered her union with her non-Muslim husband to be adultery.
Ishag's case raised questions of religious freedom in mostly-Muslim Sudan and sparked vocal protests from Western governments and human rights groups.
The case has re-focused attention on a country which has slipped from the international spotlight but where an 11-year-old war continues with millions of people in need of humanitarian aid.
Ishag's husband Wani said her family had sought protection at the US embassy because of mounting death threats.
Ishag, Wani and their children are being hosted by the Italian government in Rome for a few days before they fly to New York.