The globally known apostasy case of the death-row mother Mariam Ibrahim, forced to give birth with her legs shackled, is only one of many examples of the religious discrimination that Sudanese Christians battle on a regular basis.
The poverty-stricken Muslim country lost the majority of its Christian population to South Sudan when the South became independent in 2011 – the creation of the world’s newest nation. The South Sudanese population had fought for more than 40 years, in Africa’s longest civil war, against domination by the Islamic north. But because war so crippled and destroyed the South, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Christians fled into the north, where their lives passed often uneasily, and they found themselves settling, often by default. When peace eventually came in 2005, there was too much at stake for them to move country, and many could not afford to do so.
Not surprisingly, given the civil war fault-lines, those Christians now left in the north after the split are finding life in the Islamic nation less than easy. According to the World Watch List 2014 (an annual ranking compiled by Open Doors, which works with Christians under pressure worldwide), Sudan is the 11th most difficult country to be a Christian, out of a ranking of 50.
Destruction of church buildings
Sudanese Religious Affairs Minister Shalil Abdullah on July 12 re-iterated a freeze on new church permits, saying that Sudan has enough churches. In April 2013 his predecessor had announced that licenses would not be granted to allow for the building of new ones. Both Ministers cited the fact that the Christian population has substantially decreased since the secession of South Sudan.
The secretary-general of the Sudan Council of Churches Rev Kori El Ramli said he was surprised by this latest re-statement of the ban. “We are growing, we need more churches,” he told the BBC’s Focus on Africa radio programme.
In the most recent incident, on July 1, government officials destroyed the Sudanese Church of Christ in North Khartoum.
Within a 24-hour notice, 70 government officials turned up to demolish the church, which hosted a congregation of more than 600 people. They said the government wanted the land for low-cost housing. The church administration appealed for the demolition to be postponed until the end of the rainy season, but the officials refused.
El Ramli also told the BBC that town planners have been forcibly moving Christians to an area north of Omdurman – itself across the Nile from North Khartoum, where the church that was bulldozed had been located. The ruling means that the area where the congregation is being relocated will not have a church, he said.
“We want the government to give us new plots so we can build a new church. We are citizens and the constitution says there is freedom of religion and worship so we are using this to try to get our rights.”
El Ramli said authorities are taking a threatening stance against Christians. He said Sudanese intelligence agents interrupted a workshop the Council of Churches held at the University of Sudan on July 14, accusing them of evangelising.
According to CNN, the threat of violence has caused Sudan’s churches to empty. “The church is now contaminated with terror. You don’t feel safe in prayer,” one Christian activist, who asked CNN not to identify them by name, said.
Bishops speak of visa restrictions, now seen as South Sudanese ‘foreigners’
“Christians in Sudan can attend divine service unmolested, but there is no genuine freedom of religion and conscience in the country,” spoke out Catholic Bishop Edward Kussala, head of the Diocese of Tombura-Yambio in South Sudan, to Aid to the Church in Need on July 10.
Bishop Kussala said priests and bishops now live “as de facto illegals” in Sudan and are not allowed to hold passports.
“They cannot leave the country and would likely be barred from returning should they leave…the bishops are condemned to remain silent,” he said.
The Catholic Archbishop of Khartoum, Cardinal Zubeir Wako has also highlighted the church’s difficulties. While attending the South Sudan and Sudan Bishops’ plenary in Juba at the start of the year, he regretted that his auxiliary bishop could not attend the meeting since his passport had been detained, along with those of eight priests.
“The churches are facing serious difficulties. We must focus on the serious matters and come up with strong messages,” said Wako at the time.
The government is using the exodus of Christians from Sudan to South Sudan as an excuse to rid the Sudan church of its leadership, according to the Church officials. The leadership is largely made up South Sudanese.
The argument is given that the majority of South Sudanese have left, and others continue to leave Sudan, so the priests and religious who served the Christian community when the country was united are no longer needed.
Another senior bishop, who did not wish to be named for fear of his safety, has told World Watch Monitor the intelligence service has interrogated individual priests.
“Some have spent long periods undergoing interrogation,” said the bishop. “The (government) is also making acquiring of visas for South Sudanese priests very difficult. I think this very unfair, because the clergy need them to run the churches as ‘missionaries’ since they are seen as ‘foreigners’.”
Of the nearly 40 priests of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Khartoum, only six are considered Sudanese and may not need the permits since they hail from the Nuba Mountains.
The majority of the priests, 34, are from South Sudan, and if they wish to go home on a visit they may not get re-entry permits, according to Church officials. Many had served the Church in the north before the country split into two in December 2011.
Most senior Protestant and Roman Catholic bishops, including Cardinal Wako, who are from South Sudan now face the challenge of being seen as “missionaries” on six months visa permits.
Since 2010, no new ‘missionaries’ for the Roman Catholic Church, for example, have been allowed into Sudan, despite needs created by retirement or death.
The uncertainty of the permits is crippling the church, note Church officials, who believe the government is eyeing lucrative church properties found in Khartoum and other regions.
World Watch Monitor has learnt that priests and pastors have also been detained, threatened and harassed. All Western missionaries have forced out of the country, according to Church officials.
Destruction of churches is not new
On February 17th the police had earlier destroyed another church in the capital Khartoum.
That 300-member church also belonged to the Sudan Church of Christ. Bulldozers accompanied by police officers from the National Intelligence and Security Service had destroyed the church in Ombada in the Ondurman area of the city without prior notice. The authorities said they were destroying the church because it stood in a Muslim area.
“We had not any prior indication from the officials the church would be destroyed,” said a Christian at the time, who also sought anonymity.
In April 2012, while a brief territorial war between Sudan and South Sudan was going on, a mob of Islamist extremists attacked and destroyed a church west of Khartoum, despite a police cordon.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory body to the U.S. Congress, said in its 2014 report that Sudan’s government “continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief.”
The report noted that the government also imposes a restrictive interpretation “of Shari’ah law on Muslims and non-Muslims alike, using amputations and floggings for crimes and acts of “indecency” and “immorality” and arresting Christians for proselytizing… Religious freedom violations, as well as the violence in Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur, are the result of President Bashir’s policies of Islamization and Arabization.