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Charities fear that Sudanese coup will reverse progress on religious freedom

29 October 2021

Alamy

Street demonstration in Khartoum, Sudan, against the military coup at the end of last week

Street demonstration in Khartoum, Sudan, against the military coup at the end of last week

THE military coup in Sudan raises the threat that recent reforms increasing religious freedom will be reversed, charities warned his week.

On Monday, the head of the military, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, announced that he had dissolved the joint civilian-military government established in 2019, and declared a state of emergency. He said: “The Armed Forces will continue completing the democratic transition until the handover of the country’s leadership to a civilian, elected government.” Press reports quoted a health ministry official’s count that seven people had been killed by gunfire and 140 people had been injured in street clashes between soldiers and protesters.

On Monday, a spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, Stéphane Dujarric, said that he “strongly condemns the ongoing military coup d’état in Khartoum and all actions that could jeopardise Sudan’s political transition and stability.” He called for the immediate release of the Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, “and all others who have been detained arbitrarily”. Mr Hamdok was released on Tuesday, but a statement from his office said that other government officials remained in detention.

Months of protests led in April 2019 to the overthrow by the military of President Omar al-Bashir, who had been in power for three decades (News, 18 April 2019). A transitional government — the Sovereign Council — was set up, comprising both military and civilian leadership, after a power-sharing agreement. Full democratic elections are scheduled for 2023.

On Tuesday, the chief executive of Release International, Paul Robinson, which supports persecuted Christians worldwide, warned that “a window of opportunity towards religious freedom in Sudan could be about to close”.

The United States Commission on International Freedom reported in 2020 that Sudan had made “remarkable progress to enhance the freedom of religion or belief”, as the transitional government had repealed the public-order law used by the previous regime to “systematically used to punish individuals, particularly women, who did not conform to its strict interpretation of Sunni Islam”.

In 2020, it repealed the apostasy law, ended flogging for blasphemy, and banned female genital mutilation (FGM). It also appointed a Coptic Christian woman to the Sovereign Council. The Minister of Religious Affairs and Endowment had “stressed that his ministry now supports religious freedom for all and stands equidistant from all religions”.

There was still work to do, the Commission reported: the transitional government had not issued any permits for new churches, and the country was facing an economic crisis that threatened its transition. It states that six per cent of the country’s population is Christian, mainly concentrated in Khartoum city and the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions.

Open Doors’ senior analyst on freedom of religion in sub-Saharan Africa, Illia Djadi, said on Monday that the news of the coup would “strike fear into the heart of Sudan’s Christian population and remind them of the terrible persecution they have faced in the past. . .

“We fear that a government controlled by the military will roll back all these constitutional changes, including guarantees of religious freedom. This is going to be terrifying news for Christians after a hopeful couple of years . . .

“We desperately need to pray that Sudan’s believers aren’t returned to life under Islamic sharia law. And we need to urge the international community to engage with this and urge the military to pull back and allow for free and fair elections next year.”

The founder president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Mervyn Thomas, urged the international community to “take urgent steps to support the transitional government and to unequivocally condemn the actions of the military. Steps should be taken to ensure that protestors are able to exercise their rights peacefully and that financial and other punitive measures are imposed on the military until a civilian administration is restored.”

The governments of the UK, the United States, and Norway have condemned the coup. Their joint statement, published on Tuesday, says: “The actions of the military represent a betrayal of the revolution, the transition, and the legitimate requests of the Sudanese people for peace, justice and economic development. The right of peaceful protest must be respected; violence and bloodshed must be avoided; we also urge communication networks to be open.”

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