CHRISTIANS are once more being persecuted by the Khartoum military junta. International mediators must not ignore the threats to faith leaders and the destruction of churches, driven by the regime’s intolerant Islamist ideology.
In 2019, it seemed that decades of persecution had finally ended for Sudan’s Christians. Field Marshal al-Bashir, indicted for genocide in Darfur by the International Criminal Court, was ousted. A transitional government vowed to abolish laws discriminating against the millions of Christians living in Sudan.
Nearly one year ago, however, an Islamist-military junta seized power (News, 29 October 2021). Once more, church property is being attacked and confiscated, and leaders are harassed and detained. Sudanese Christians are appealing for help from the international community.
Under al-Bashir, the department for Christian affairs was headed by a Muslim working closely with the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). The Catholic Club became the headquarters for the ruling National Congress Party (the rebranded National Islamic Front); the Sudan Interior Church became the offices of the NISS; and Tijani Al-Mahi Hospital was taken from the Episcopal Church.
A Sudanese religious leader who remains anonymous for his own safety contends that the NCP junta appointed ostensibly Christian cronies to the department. They are alleged to have signed rental agreements on behalf of Sudanese churches which were unfair, benefiting party members and NISS agents.
The transitional government promised to restore ownership of church buildings, and to abolish the apostasy section, Article 126, of the 1991 Sudanese Penal Code. Yet security agents continue to raid churches and arrest individuals who have converted. Thousands of Muslim Sudanese survivors of the Darfur genocide became Christians because, in the words of one church elder, “Christian charities helped them, whereas Muslim-led governments did not defend them, largely because they were seen as Black African, not Arab.”
The short-lived transitional government published a constitutional declaration that guaranteed Christians the right to equality before the law, protection from discrimination, and freedom of religious belief and worship. The new Fundamental Rights and Freedoms Act prohibited the labelling of any group as infidels. The United States duly removed Sudan from the list of countries of particular concern and from its Special Watch List.
SINCE the restoration of military rule, however, security agents have attacked and tortured religious leaders, and destroyed and confiscated church property. In one instance, a Darfur pastor and his three children died in mysterious circumstances after visits from armed security agents.
In August 2020, a church in the Jabrona area of Omdurman was destroyed by arson, after four attacks between December 2019 and January 2020. In January 2021, a church in Tambul, in Aljazeera State, was burned in an arson attack that was never investigated. Last July, four Christians in Zalingi, in Darfur, were charged with apostasy under the defunct article 126, and eventually released.
The Episcopal diocese of Abyei is in a disputed border enclave, attacked by both Sudan and South Sudan, despite the presence of UN peacekeepers. The Bishop of Abyei, in South Sudan, the Rt Revd Michael Deng Bol, says: “People of Abyei feel left behind, abandoned by both countries. It is hard to understand why diplomats have done nothing.”
The founder of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), Baroness Cox, who visits regularly, says: “The scale of suffering and depth of grief is overwhelming. They are indignant at the failure of peacekeepers to provide adequate protection. The conflict will almost certainly spiral out of control.”
The Sudan specialist Gill Lusk explains that fundamentalist ideology once more plays a central part in the military junta, with the return of civilian Islamists from the ousted al-Bashir regime. Osama bin Laden was given sanctuary for years by the al-Bashir regime, and, although the US and UN applied sanctions, the international community gradually came to accept a certain level of Islamist repression — as long as it did not directly affect their own countries.
Ms Lusk fears that the international community is repeating previous mistakes. “At the moment, most diplomats are still talking as if the junta were military rather than Islamist — and therefore open to serious negotiation,” she says.
Ms Lusk points out that the hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters who brought down the al-Bashir regime in 2019 were almost entirely Muslim. They continue to protest peacefully in their thousands, shouting anti-Islamist slogans and demanding civilian rule and justice. Dozens have been shot, hundreds have been seriously injured, and the security services have pursued the wounded into hospital to tear-gas them.
THE UK Government and British Christians should press diplomats to hold Sudan to its obligations to abide by international conventions on freedom of religion and belief.
The West has leverage over Khartoum: inflation in 2021 was 359 per cent, and the economy has ground to a halt, with massive debt and high unemployment. Sudan needs inward investment and economic help.
We must support Sudanese civil society in its calls for an accountable civilian government, and free and fair elections.
Rebecca Tinsley is founder of the human-rights group Waging Peace. A comprehensive list of verified attacks can be found here