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Sudanese woman who faced death over faith arrives in U.S.

MANCHESTER, N.H. - A Sudanese woman who refused to recant her Christian faith in the face of a death sentence arrived Thursday in the United States, where she was welcomed first by the mayor of Philadelphia as a "world freedom fighter" and later by cheering supporters waving American flags in New Hampshire.

Meriam Ibrahim flew from Rome to Philadelphia with her husband and two children, en route to Manchester, where her husband has family and where they will make their new home.

Her husband, Daniel Wani, briefly thanked New Hampshire's Sudanese community on his family's behalf and said he appreciated the outpouring of support.

"Thank you so much," he said, tears streaming down his face. "I am so relieved. The ordeal is over."

Ibrahim 27, smiled and waved to the crowd of about three dozen supporters, but she did not speak publicly.

A boy holds a sign welcoming Meriam Ibrahim at the airport in Manchester, N.H., July 31, 2014. BRIAN SNYDER, REUTERS

Earlier in Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter said people will remember Ibrahim along "with others who stood up so we could be free." He compared her to Rosa Parks, who became a symbol of the U.S. civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, touching off a bus boycott.

Nutter said it was only fitting Ibrahim landed first in Philadelphia, a city founded as a place open to all faiths. He gave her a small replica of the Liberty Bell, a symbol of American independence, which he said she understood.

"Meriam Ibrahim is a world freedom fighter," he said.

Ibrahim was sentenced to death over charges of apostasy, the abandonment of a religion. Ibrahim says she was raised by her Ethiopian Orthodox mother as a Christian, and that her Muslim father left the family when she was 6 years old. She married Wani, a Christian from southern Sudan, in 2011.

But under Sudanese law, children must follow their fathers' religions, and the Sudanese government insisted that Ibrahim was Muslim. Muslim women in Sudan are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims, so she was also sentenced to receive 100 lashes for adultery, because the government did not consider her marriage to a Christian legal.

While she was in prison, Ibrahim gave birth to her daughter, Maya. Her son, Martin, almost 2, was also in prison with her.

Sudan's highest court overturned her death sentence in June, but the government initially blocked Ibrahim from leaving the country. The family took refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum.

After finally leaving Sudan, the family went to Rome, where they met with and were blessed by Pope Francis.

Pope Francis meets Meriam Ibrahim, with daughter Maya in her arms, in his Santa Marta residence, at the Vatican, Thursday, July 24, 2014. L'Osservatore Romano/AP

The family will now live in Manchester, a city of 110,000 residents about 50 miles north of Boston. Northern New England's largest city, Manchester has been a magnet for immigrants and refugees for decades. There are about 500 Sudanese living in the city, which is just north of the Massachusetts state line.

Ibrahim's husband, who previously lived in New Hampshire, had been granted U.S. citizenship when he fled to the United States as a child to escape civil war, but he later returned and was a citizen of South Sudan.

The family was met at the Manchester airport by Gabriel Wani, Ibrahim's brother-in-law, and dozens of supporters holding balloons, signs and flags. The crowd cheered as they stopped in the terminal, and several women reached out to hug Ibrahim.

"We're just going to go and bring them home," Gabriel Wani said. "They want to come home, and they want to rest."

Monyroor Teng, pastor of the Sudanese Evangelical Covenant Church in Manchester, said Ibrahim's release gives him hope.

"People are really happy to receive them when they come home," he said. "It's a miracle to me. I didn't think that something like this would happen because, in Sudan, when something happens like that, it's unreal. It happens to so many people. Maybe, who knows, I'm praying for those (other) ladies who are in jail and those who have died."

The Rev. William Devlin, a New York pastor who had helped the family, said Ibrahim expressed some sadness when he talked to her Wednesday.

"She is leaving everything she knows behind," he said.

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