The recent news that Meriam Ibrahim and her family have arrived in Rome and been received by the Pope will come as a pleasant surprise to many. Clearly the Italians have been at work behind the scenes. This is very much a project of the Italian state, as the deputy foreign minister accompanied Meriam and the family on their flight from Sudan, and they were met at Ciampino airport by the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi.
Mr Renzi, earlier this month, made a speech inaugurating Italy’s presidency of the European Union, in which he mentioned the case and said: “If there is no European reaction we cannot feel worthy to call ourselves ‘Europe’.”
Mr Renzi’s words are both wise and profound: they show us that this case is not just to do with the question of religious freedom, but that religious freedom in itself goes to the heart of what it is to be European, and that there can be no serious European values without religious freedom. Mr Renzi in his remarks thus makes the entirely reasonable claim that European values rest on the sure foundation of religious values.
But this is not the first time that the Italians have come to the aid of a Christian in danger. Back in 2006, the bunga bunga loving Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, offered asylum to an Afghan who was about to be sentenced to death for apostasy. Abdul Rahman had become a Christian outside his own country some sixteen years previously and then unwisely gone home and been arrested. It was said at the time that Mr Berlusconi intervened in the case at the personal request of Saint John Paul II. It may well be this time too that the Pope urged the Italian government to act. That would explain why Meriam was granted not just time with the Prime Minister, but also with the Pontiff.
Neither Meriam or any members of her family are, as far as I can determine, Catholic, but this did not stop the Vatican and the Italians acting in their case. The religious freedom of non-Catholics is just as important as that of Catholics. Nor should the fact that a Western government has acted on behalf on one woman and her family be taken as an indication that it only cares about this single case. There are perhaps thousands of Meriams in the world. Each one counts. None is forgotten. The single case of Meriam should serve to illustrate the importance of all such cases, including that of Asia Bibi, whom we have not forgotten.
Just as the Italian Prime Minister, and not for the first time, has acted in such matters, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the British Prime Minister could do something for those who are falsely accused of blasphemy is Pakistan?