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New England city awaits Sudanese Christian woman who faced death

Posted at 1:04 PM, Jul 27, 2014
and last updated 2014-07-27 13:04:43-04

The wait is nearly over in a close-knit Manchester, New Hampshire, community with ties to South Sudan.

Mariam Yehya Ibrahim, the Sudanese Christian woman sentenced to death in Sudan because of her faith, arrived in Rome on Thursday with her husband Daniel Wani, an American citizen who has lived in Manchester, the baby girl she gave birth to while in prison, and her toddler son. The family, which met with Pope Francis in Vatican City, is expected to the travel to the United States.

“I was crying,” Gabriel Wani said of the predawn phone he received from his brother Daniel the other day. “He said they were coming to New Hampshire. This is his place now.”

The family’s plight has long been a topic of prayer meetings and Sunday sermons, dinner-table talk and pleas to members of Congress from people in a city that has learned to embrace newcomers. Since Thursday, southern Sudanese people have been stopping by Gabriel Wani’s home in Manchester, where he lives with his wife and their three daughters, with words of support.

“A lot of people have been waiting for them,” Wani said. “The whole community wants to welcome them.”

‘Everybody comes following someone else’

In 1998, Daniel Wani, his brother Gabriel and sister Mary were among the first southern Sudanese refugees to resettle in Manchester.

Manchester — with a population of about 110,000, the largest city in northern New England — has long served as a resettlement site for refugees from dozens of countries who have been scattered throughout the United States by the State Department.

Since the late 1990s, more than 500 people from what is now South Sudan were resettled in New Hampshire, the majority of them in Manchester, according to refugee advocates.

Newcomers included southern Sudanese children taken as slaves during the country’s most recent civil war along with a handful of the thousands of orphaned and displaced children, known as the “Lost Boys,” who trekked hundreds of miles to neighboring countries to escape the violence.

“Everybody comes following someone else,” said Monyroor Teng, pastor of the Sudanese Evangelical Covenant Church, who arrived in Manchester in 2004 after spending three years as a refugee in Egypt.

The church is hosting a welcoming reception for the family, said Zakaria Aging, who came to the United States from Sudan in 2000. Members of southern Sudanese community were also planning to greet them at the airport.

“I don’t have any words right now,” Aging said.

Italy steps in to help

A court in Sudan overturned Ibrahim’s death sentence a few weeks ago, but police arrested her again June 24 when she and her family tried to leave Sudan to go to the United States.

Police accused her of falsifying travel documents in an attempt to fly to the United States with her family. They were taken into custody at the airport in the capital, Khartoum.

The family had been confined to a safe house in Sudan until this week, when they traveled to Italy. A Sudanese Islamic jihadist group on Monday released a statement threatening Ibrahim, vowing to carry out what it said was the justified death sentence against her.

Italy’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Lapo Pistelli said his country became involved because it was moved by Ibrahim’s story. Italy maintains good relations with Khartoum and offered to help the U.S. Embassy there speed up the process of getting U.S. passports for Ibrahim and her family, the minister said.

Gabriel Wani remembered speaking to his brother by phone Wednesday and being told, “We’re still waiting. We don’t know what’s going on.”

The next day, Daniel Wani called with the news: “We’re out of the country.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” Gabriel Wani said.

Pistelli said it was unclear how long the family will stay in Rome before traveling the United States because of passport procedures.

Ibrahim’s ordeal started when a Muslim relative filed a criminal complaint saying she had married Wani, a Christian, after going missing for several years. A Sudanese court considered Ibrahim a Muslim because her father was Muslim.

She was charged with adultery on grounds that a Muslim woman’s marriage to a Christian man is illegal in Sudan. Ibrahim also was charged with apostasy, accused of illegally renouncing what was alleged to be her original faith.

In May, while about eight months pregnant, she was convicted. In chains, Ibrahim gave birth about two weeks later in a women’s hospital in Khartoum.

Ibrahim had been detained since mid-January. She refused to let go of her 20-month-old son Martin for fear she would never see him again.

At Ibrahim’s sentencing, a sheikh told the court “how dangerous a crime like this is to Islam and the Islamic community,” said attorney Mohamed Jar Elnabi, who represented Ibrahim.

“I am a Christian,” Ibrahim fired back, “and I will remain a Christian.”

Ibrahim was born to a Sudanese Muslim father and an Ethiopian Orthodox mother. Her father left when she was 6 years old. She was raised by her mother as a Christian. Her father was Muslim, so the courts considered her the same, which would mean her marriage to a non-Muslim man is void.

Daniel Wani is board chairman of the South Sudan Community of New Hampshire, a nonprofit that provides translators, basic English classes, tutoring for children and outreach services.

“His plan all along was to bring his family to New Hampshire,” Gabriel Wani said.