Rome (CNN) - Mariam Yehya Ibrahim, the Sudanese Christian woman sentenced to death in Sudan because of her faith, arrived in Rome on Thursday, the Italian Foreign Ministry said.
Ibrahim "will remain in Italy for a short time and then will travel on to the United States," the ministry said.
Sudanese authorities had said Ibrahim was guilty of rejecting Islam in favor of Christianity, but her conviction for "apostasy" and adultery was overturned last month on appeal, following weeks of international controversy.
After her release, she and her husband, American Daniel Wani, were detained for two days, accused of falsifying travel documents after going to the airport in Sudan's capital, Khartoum. They were trying to fly to the United States with their baby daughter, who was born while Ibrahim was in prison, and toddler son.
Now their dream of starting a new life in the United States appears to be on the verge of becoming reality.
Not only that, but Ibrahim and her family met with Pope Francis at his private residence in Domus Santa Marta in Vatican City.
During the meeting Thursday, which lasted about half an hour, Ibrahim thanked the Pope for his and the Roman Catholic Church's support and prayers, the Vatican said.
He, in turn, thanked Ibrahim and her family for their "courageous witness and constancy of faith."
Francis also played with the children, 18-month-old Martin and 2-month-old Maya, and greeted the Italian diplomats involved in her journey to Italy.
With this gesture, the Vatican said, the Pope "desired to show his closeness, attention and prayer also to all those who suffer for their faith, in particular to Christians who are enduring persecution or limitations imposed upon their religious freedom."
Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) - Just days after the militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria said they killed hundreds of Syrians, dozens of Iraqi Christian families are now fleeing the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul, hoping to avoid a similar fate.
On Friday, the al Qaeda splinter group issued an ultimatum to Iraqi Christians living in Mosul - by Saturday they must convert to Islam, pay a fine or face "death by the sword."
A total of 52 Christian families left the city of Mosul early Saturday morning, with an armed group prohibiting some of them from taking anything but the clothes on their backs.
"They told us, 'You to leave all of your money, gold, jewelry and go out with only the clothes on you,'" Wadie Salim told CNN.
Images obtained exclusively by CNN show that the phrase "property of ISIS" scrawled in black paint on a number of the homes that were abandoned.
Some of the families headed for Irbil - which is currently controlled by Kurdish forces - and others toward the Dohuk province. The majority went to Dohuk, which is 140 kilometers (87 miles) north of Mosul.
"We did not know how to act," said another Mosul resident, Um Nazik. "Are we going to get killed?"
ISIS was able to take over large swaths of land due to the lack of centralized authority in both Iraq and war-torn Syria. The Sunni militants hope to establish an Islamic state throughout the region it currently controls.
By Laura Smith-Spark, Ivan Watson and Delia Gallagher, CNN
Bethlehem, West Bank (CNN) - Pope Francis extended an invitation Sunday to the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to travel to the Vatican for a "peace initiative," after earlier calling for a two-state solution to the intractable conflict.
The pontiff's remarks came at the end of an outdoor Mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square on the second day of his three-day trip to the Middle East.
"In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with Israeli President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace," Francis said.
"I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer."
He added, "Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment. The men and women of these lands, and of the entire world, all of them, ask us to bring before God their fervent hopes for peace."
The Palestinian side has accepted the invitation and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will go to the Vatican, a Palestinian Legislative Council member, Hanan Ashrawi, told CNN.
The Israeli President's office said that he welcomed the invitation. "President Peres has always supported, and will continue to support, any attempts to progress the cause of peace," his office said.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Editor
(CNN) - International pressure is mounting on Sudan to release a pregnant Christian woman sentenced to death for apostasy, with members of the U.S. Congress asking Secretary of State John Kerry to intervene on her behalf.
On Wednesday, a bi-partisan group of four senators introduced a resolution condemning the sentencing of Meriam Yahya Ibrahim by a court in Khartoum on May 15.
The proposed resolution encourages Sudan to respect religious rights if it wants the United States to normalize relations or lift economic sanctions on the African nation.
“I am disgusted and appalled by the inhumane verdict Ms. Ibrahim has received, simply for refusing to recant her Christian faith," said Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"I also commend Ms. Ibrahim’s courage in refusing to renounce her Christianity, and I encourage her to remain steadfast. The world condemns her verdict and will stand by her in her moment of need," said Rubio.
The resolution was co-sponsored by Sens. Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma; Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware; and Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey.
The proposed Senate resolution adds more voices to the international outcry over the situation of Ibrahim, a Christian wife and mother who is pregnant with her second child while shackled in a Sudanese jail. Ibrahim's husband, Daniel Wani, is a U.S. citizen.
(CNN) - Since 1999, the U.S. State Department has tracked the world's worst abusers of religious rights.
As the most recent report notes, it has never lacked for material. Persecutions of people of faith are rising across the globe.
Among the most worrying trends, according to the State Department, are "authoritarian governments that restrict their citizens’ ability to practice their religion."
In typically bland bureaucratic language, the State Department calls these "countries of particular concern." But the designation can come with some teeth.
Sudan, for example, where a Christian woman was sentenced to death this week for leaving Islam, is ineligible for some types of foreign aid.
In addition to Sudan, here are the State Department's "countries of particular concern." You might call them "The Worst Places in the World to Be Religious."
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-editor
(CNN) - If you don't like it, leave the room.
That's Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's advice for atheists and others who object to sectarian prayers before government meetings.
In a 5-4 decision written by Kennedy, the Supreme Court allowed Greece, New York, to continue hosting prayers before its monthly town board meetings - even though an atheist and a Jewish citizen complained that the benedictions are almost always explicitly Christian.
Many members of the country's majority faith - that is, Christians - hailed the ruling.
Many members of minority faiths, as well as atheists, responded with palpable anger, saying the Supreme Court has set them apart as second-class citizens.
Groups from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to the Hindu American Foundation decried Monday's decision.
"The court’s decision to bless ‘majority-rules’ prayer is out of step with the changing face of America, which is more secular and less dogmatic,” said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which litigated the case.
At least one justice, Elena Kagan, seemed to agree. And while Kennedy's decision reads like a lesson in American history, Kagan's dissent offers a picture of the country's increasingly pluralistic present.
By Bill Mears and Daniel Burke, CNN
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Should prayers to God open government meetings?
That's the controversial question a divided Supreme Court debated on Wednesday.
At oral arguments about whether public prayers at a New York town's board meetings are permissible, the high court took a broad look at the country's church-state history and even the Supreme Court's own traditions.
Two local women sued officials in Greece, New York, objecting that monthly Town Board public sessions have opened with invocations they say have been overwhelmingly Christian.
But the case's implications extend far beyond upstate New York and could have widespread consequences, according to constitutional scholars.
"This is going to affect communities across the country," said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center.
The frequent court battles over public prayers, Ten Commandment memorials and holiday displays might strike some Americans as silly, but they touch on deep questions about national identity to reach back to the Founding Fathers, Haynes said.
"It's a long struggle in our country about self-definition and what our country was founded to be. That's why we keep circling back to these emotional and highly divisive questions."
At Wednesday's oral arguments, the court's conservative majority appeared to have the votes to allow the public prayers to continue in some form, but both sides expressed concerns about the level of judicial and government oversight over prayers presented by members of a particular faith.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) - Heaven and Earth are said to meet atop Jerusalem’s sacred mounts, but the city’s stony streets have seen more than their share of violence.
King David subdued the Jebusites, the city's Canaanite founders. The Babylonians and Romans routed the Jews. Muslims booted the Byzantines. Christian Crusaders mauled Muslims and were, in turn, tossed out by the Tartars.
The Ottomans followed, then Britain, then Jordan, before finally, in 1967, the city came nearly full circle when Israel annexed East Jerusalem. That sparked another cycle of violence, this time between Israelis and Palestinians.
“It’s easily the most contentious piece of real estate in the world,” says Anthony Bourdain, who visits Jerusalem in the season premiere of “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown,” which debuts Sunday night on CNN.
“And there’s no hope - none - of ever talking about it without pissing someone off.”
Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
(CNN) — At first glance, it would seem that the town of Greece, New York, has been brazenly violating the First Amendment. For roughly a decade, it invited local Christians — and only Christians — to offer prayers opening its Town Board meetings.
Two non-Christian town residents — Susan Galloway (who is Jewish) and Linda Stephens (who is an atheist) — objected, arguing that this practice violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.”
The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, finding that the town’s practice of repeatedly inviting Christians to offer demonstrably Christian prayers amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the case.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
At the interfaith prayer service held in today for the victims of the Boston marathon bombing (including Lu Lingzi, a graduate student at Boston University, where I teach), President Barack Obama was once again called upon to play the pastor-in-chief at a moment of national tragedy.
In his speech, Obama did a lot of cheering for the home town, praising Boston as “the perfect state of grace.” He recalled his time as a law student at Harvard. He cheered on the Red Sox, the Celtics, the Patriots, and the Bruins. And he repeatedly referred to Bostonians as a gritty people who would not give in to terrorism in the 21st century any more than they bowed to the British in the 18th.
As I listened to the speech, however, I couldn't help hearing echoes of President Ronald Reagan.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.