On April the 3rd 2017, the courtyard of the Evangelical Church and School in Omdurman, witnessed the killing of Sheikh Yunnan Abdullah, a religious leader of the church, an incident which displays the growing religious discrimination against; and oppression of Sudanese Christians. The incidence occurred in regard to a conflict over land, in which the Evangelical Church is struggling to defend the lands and properties of the church, against land grabbing by a group supported by the Ministry of Guidance, which is aiming to sell and allocate the land for investment.
Sudan Religious Discrimination
and the Quest for National Integration
In the early morning of Friday 18th December 2015, forces from the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) arrested the two pastors Hassan Abdul Rahim Kodi and Telal Ngosi at their homes and took them to an unknown destination. The two pastors are senior clerics in the Church of Jesus Christ of Sudan. Pastor Hassan is the Secretary General of the church. Since then they have been held in incommunicado detention: their families have been prevented from visiting them and access to lawyers and legal aid denied. To date, no charges have been brought against them.
Since the 1989 National Islamic Front (NIF) coup, Sudan has witnessed a significant clampdown on religious freedoms. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) period however did protect a certain margin of freedom with Article 38 of the Interim Constitution of 2005 providing that, “Every person shall have the right to the freedom of religious creed and worship, and to declare his/her religion or creed and manifest the same, by way of worship, education, practice or performance of rites or ceremonies, subject to requirements of law and public order; no person shall be coerced to adopt such faith, that he/she does not believe in, nor to practice rites or services to which he/she does not voluntarily consent“.
Although the Interim Constitution is still in force, with the independence of South Sudan in July 2011 there has been a steady erosion of the space created by the CPA. Even before independence, statements by President Omar Al-Bashir made it clear that there was little intention to maintain the freedoms revitalized by the CPA. He declared, “If South Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity… Sharia (Islamic law) and Islam will be the main source for legislation, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language“. Al-Bashir’s statement was a clear indication that a crackdown against religious freedom was in preparation for the post-secession period, and, in particular, against Christians. This revealed itself immediately after the outbreak of war in the Two Areas (Nuba Mountains/South Kordofan and Blue Nile) in mid-2011 when Khartoum witnessed an increasing number of attacks on churches. It seemed the authorities perceived Churches as spaces where unwanted groups of people from the Two Areas—where Christianity is practiced—could congregate.
Attacks on religious leaders and places of worship
In June 2011, an extremist group burned a building belonging to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sudan in Omdurman, and no investigation took place into the incident. At the beginning of 2012, a group of local citizens again burned a Christian compound of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in El-Gerif West area in Khartoum. A Salafy Sheikh was accused of publicly mobilizing his followers to carry out this act, but the police did not investigate and the authorities did not bring any official charges against the alleged perpetrators. In the same year, local authorities in Khartoum State demolished the premises of the Episcopal Church of Haj Yousif on the pretext that it had been built without planning permission from authorities, despite the Church being established there since the 1970s.
In 2014, the attacks on churches continued. In July of that year, the authorities demolished one of the churches of the Church of Jesus Christ of Sudan in Tayba Alahamda area in northern Khartoum. In December 2014, the authorities stripped the Evangelical Church in Khartoum North of a large portion of its land and destroyed some of its buildings on the pretext of allocating the land to investment. This effectively stopped the activities of the church. The authorities also closed down the Pentecostal Church, located in Said Abdelrahman Street in central Khartoum without giving any reasons. In October 2015, local authorities demolished the buildings of the Lutheran Evangelical Church in West Omdurman once again under the cover of “lack of planning permission” despite the Church having been there since 1990s.
In addition to the attack on churches, harassment against Christian clerics continued in the same period. In October 2013, the Sudanese authorities arrested Zonjal Abraham Mikhail a deacon in the Evangelical Church and withdrew his Sudanese passport. In July of that same year, the NISS arrested five priests of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church; Raafat Said Musad, Farouq Angelo, Noah James, Daoud Fadul and George Youhana, members of the elected Management Committee for the Church. All arrested priests were accused of disturbing public order and social peace. They were later released on warranty without charges – but only after the Ministry of Guidance and Religious Affairs dissolved their Committee and appointed a new body to manage the Church. NISS also detained Anba Ilya, the bishop of the Church of Khartoum, hours before the celebration of Christmas in late 2013.
In December 2014, NISS arrested the visiting South Sudanese priests Yat Michael and Peter Yen on the grounds simply that they had sent a letter to the Office of Religious Affairs at the Ministry of Guidance and Religious Affairs, enquiringly about the reasons for the arrests of some religious leaders. Both evangelical priests were charged with spying and incitement of war against the state. The detention of priests Yat Michael and Peter Yen continued until August 2015 when a court ordered their release. In November 2015 NISS re-detained them and appealed the court ruling, claiming that new evidence had been obtained.
Denial of religious diversity in the public sphere
In addition to the individual targeting of Christian religious leaders, there has been broader state practice which has further undermined the religious rights of Sudanese Christians. Since 2011, for example, the government has stopped the celebration of Christmas as an official holiday, alongside other non-Muslim religious occasions, including refusing to broadcast these celebrations through the state-own media outlets.
The most systematic and government-driven religious discrimination and attacks against religious freedoms, however, have been suffered by the people of the Nuba Mountains/South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The security apparatus appears to consider their churches in Khartoum as centers of undesirable gatherings and their leaders as opinion leaders who are categorised as security threats given their influence in their parishes. This combination of ethnic and religious targeting and discrimination against Sudanese citizens of Nuba Mountains/South Kordofan and Blue Nile origin has become a key tool of the political conflict in the two regions. Such actions by the regime aim at generating support from extremist Islamic circles and misleading the Sudanese public so that the actual causes of the wars in the two regions are misunderstood. The result of this systematic religious discrimination is not only the exposure of citizens from Nuba Mountains/South Kordofan and Blue Nile to a double oppression (ethnic and religious targeting) but also the masking of historic failures of governance, political and social grievances and uneven development which are the foundation of the conflict.
The gravity of the religious discrimination and the systematic violations of religious freedom experienced by Sudanese Christians have already deepened the fragmentation of the Sudanese social fabric. The insistence on Sharia laws and the holy war (Jihad) pursued by the same regime during the 1990s against its citizens in southern Sudan, to a large degree, led to the separation of a significant part of the country (the Republic of South Sudan). Without understanding and addressing the root causes and consequences of religious discrimination, the continuation of such discrimination, in association with other layers of discrimination (ethnic, gender, geographic and class), is likely to lead to further fragmentation.
One major hazard of this religious targeting is the creation of space for the growth of radical extremist groups. Al Qeada and its affiliates, and now ISIS, have been known for recruiting youth from Sudan. Sudan is increasingly seen as a place of study, contact with and staging ground for, the global jihadi movement. Formal government encouragement of targeting and discriminating against Christians and other religions is providing a safe womb for the further growth of extremism.
Significance of religious freedom in national integration
Sudanese Christians, other non-Muslims and Muslims who express their faith through diverse traditions are full citizens who must enjoy their full citizenship and constitutional rights without being subjected to discrimination. Democratic forces in Sudan should raise their voices in support of these groups on the understanding that the only peaceful and stable future for Sudan is one based on the total acceptance of the rich cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of the Sudanese social fabric.
Civil society should also play a major role and engage in national projects which reflect on, and promote, Sudan’s historical religious and cultural diversity.
Political parties and leaders should priorities the maintenance of religious and cultural freedoms as core principles in any revision of the constitution and new constitutional arrangements. Parties to Sudan’s conflicts should ensure that protection of religious and cultural freedoms and rights is a core part of any peace agreement which is negotiated in the context of the various conflicts.
The Sudanese government should be rational and responsible and look for the better good of its people by respecting the natural and acquired rights of Sudanese citizens. Although there is no hope of such action from the Government of Sudan, SDFG will keep calling upon all parties to respect the rights of Sudanese citizens on equal bases.