The Sudanese Church of Christ, Bahri, North Khartoum, in 2014, before it was demolished by the government to make room for low-cost housing. The church had been home to a congregation of 600 members.
The Sudanese Church of Christ, Bahri, North Khartoum, in 2014, before it was demolished by the government to make room for low-cost housing. The church had been home to a congregation of 600 members. (Photo courtesy of Open Doors)

What is happening?

The UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights is scheduled to hold a 3 1/2-hour hearing in Geneva on Wednesday, 4 May, at which UN member nations will examine the state of human rights in Sudan.

It promises to be an interesting meeting. Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, is the world’s only sitting head of state wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity. It’s also the first time Sudan has been required to answer to UN members for its human-rights performance since the 2011 breakup of the country, which created the world’s newest nation, South Sudan. In the years since, the Sudanese government has waged a bombing campaign against restive, resource-rich southern regions on the border with South Sudan.

Sudan’s Christians, who along with indigenous groups have been concentrated in the southern regions of the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country, are among the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the violence, and whose homes, crops, churches, schools and hospitals have been destroyed.

The UN’s formal name for the 4 May session is the Universal Periodic Review, or UPR.

UPDATE: Watch a video recording of the UPR here.

How does the UPR work?

The UN created the UPR in 2006. Every member nation of the UN is required to go through it. It takes about 4 1/2 years to complete a cycle of all members, and a new cycle begins.

Prior to the actual meeting in Geneva, the country submits its own assessment of how it believes it is living up to human-rights obligations. Other countries can submit their own observations. The UN Human Rights Council may send in an “independent expert” to produce a report on the situation. External groups such as Amnesty International may submit their own testimony.

The final report is a list of findings and recommendations from other UN members. Each country is required to submit reports on how they’re responding to the recommendations, but ultimately there’s no way to compel any country to adopt any UPR recommendations. The UN says the point of the process, besides surfacing human-rights issues for public scrutiny, is to ensure all nations receive “equal treatment” in the examination.

World Watch Monitor / Google Earth

What did the previous UPR say about Sudan?

Sudan has gone through the UPR once before, in 2011. [You can read that report here.]

At the time, there was concern for the future of the Church in Sudan, since al-Bashir had declared Sudan would become an Islamic state governed by sharia. Since then, life has become very difficult for its Christian minority, according to Open Doors, a ministry that provides support to Christians who live under pressure around the globe. Abandoning Islam in Sudan is a crime that carries the death penalty.

Among the scores of recommendations UN members made to Sudan in the 2011 report, a handful concerned religion. Condensed and paraphrased here:

  • Forbid the application of sharia to non-Muslims, and decriminalise apostasy
  • Declare an intention to guarantee the protection of religious minorities
  • Create legal guarantees permitting free practice of religion, taking special care to safeguard minority Christians in the north, and minority Muslims in the south.

What does Sudan say?

Following the 2011 UPR, the government submitted its required mid-term report. Its entire response to the recommendations about religious freedom was that “religion is protected” by its 2005 constitution, and would continue to be protected in any constitution devised after South Sudan’s secession.

In advance of the 2016 UPR, the Sudanese government is upbeat. Its 25-page self-assessment contains various claims that it has reformed laws and changed administrative practices to crack down on human trafficking and violence against women; expand press freedom; wind down the deadly conflict in the Darfur region; and even enhance environmental protection, among many other advancements in human rights.

The mid-term document says nothing about religious freedom. The word “religion” appears nowhere among its 12,000 words. The lone appearance of the word “religious” is in an item that claims “religious figures” are among the leaders of a campaign to eliminate female genital mutilation from the culture.

What have others said about Sudan in advance of the 2016 UPR?

Others are harshly critical of Sudan’s record on religious freedom since its first UPR round in 2011.

For more than a decade the U.S. State Department has included Sudan among a short list of countries it considers the world’s most egregious oppressors of religious freedom.

Open Doors says life for Christians has become more difficult since 2011. Rev. Kuwa Shamal, a leader of a Sudan Church of Christ congregation in his town of Bahri, was arrested and released in December 2015, and now is required to report daily to the National Intelligence and Security Services. Two other pastors, Telahoon Nogosi Kassa Rata of the Khartoum North (Bahri) Evangelical Church and Rev. Hassan Abduraheem Kodi Taour, outgoing Secretary General of the Sudan Church of Christ, were arrested in December and remain in custody, the charges against them unknown and contact with them denied.

Since 2011, the government has demolished or padlocked four churches, claiming a variety of land-use violations, Open Doors says. In June 2015, a dozen women were arrested by Sudan’s Public Order Police for wearing skirts and slacks. One of them was sentenced to 40 lashes before an appeals court threw out the punishment.

Perhaps Sudan’s most notorious episode was its 2013 arrest of Mariam Yahya Ibrahim, a mother pregnant with her second child. Raised a Christian by her mother after her Muslim father abandoned the family, Ibrahim’s crime was adultery, evidenced by her failure to return to Islam before she married a Christian man. She was sentenced to death, gave birth to a daughter while in prison, and after intense international pressure was released by an appeals court and left the country.

The Open Doors World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries where living as a Christian is most difficult, puts Sudan at No. 8. According to the list, Christians are beset by a combination of “one of the most dictatorial regimes in Africa” that routinely whips up anger at the West, and by radical elements within the country’s Islamic society.

The United Nations Independent Expert on human rights in Sudan, Aristide Nononsi, told the UN in his pre-UPR report that he was alarmed by the arrest of the church pastors and other abuses.

“I continue to hear about cases of arbitrary arrests and detention, as well as allegations of ill-treatment and travel ban on human rights defenders and political activists by security forces, including the National Intelligence and Security Service,” Nononsi wrote.

Amnesty International, in its own report submitted to the UN prior to Sudan’s turn in the spotlight on 4 May, said the country “has failed to implement” the 2011 recommendations regarding religious freedom and other human rights. “There is widespread suppression of non-Muslim and Muslim minority groups as well as violations of freedom of religion in Sudan,” the report says. “Freedom of religion continues to be undermined by the Sudan’s legal system under which conversion from Islam to another religion is punishable by death.”

Human Rights Watch noted that four Sudanese “civil society representatives” on their way to a March UPR preparation meeting in Geneva were intercepted by National Intelligence and Security Service at the airport and had their passports confiscated.

What happens after the UPR hearing?

The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights is scheduled to distribute its final report on 9 May, and vote on its adoption the following day.