Forty-eight-year-old father of three Rev. Yamane Abraha received an ultimatum in Khartoum following a trip to Ethiopia in the autumn of 2015.
“[Sudanese government] security threatened me, saying I would have to appear in court either as a witness, or an accused,” the Evangelical Baptist Church of Khartoum pastor told World Watch Monitor. “But my father was sick, so unlike others I couldn’t escape.”
Abraha was one of several Sudanese Christians gathered abroad to pray for their nation. Among them were Rev. Hassan Taour and Rev. Kuwa Shamal, Sudan Church of Christ pastors from the Nuba Mountains region.
Also attending was Czech Christian aid worker Petr Jašek. According to Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern, these three had helped facilitate financial assistance to pay for the medical treatment of a Darfurian university student who had suffered burn wounds when government security officials attacked a campus demonstration in Omdurman, north of the capital, Khartoum.
Sudanese at the meeting suspected there were spies around their Addis Ababa hotel. Then shortly after their return to Khartoum, the police arrested Taour, Shamal and Jašek, in December 2015. They have now been in detention for a year. Detained along with them is Abdulmonem Abdumawla, also from Darfur, who helped facilitate the medical treatment for the student.
The four are charged with waging war against the Sudanese state, espionage, conspiracy to carry out criminal acts, and undermining the authority of the state through violence. Trial proceedings finally begun in August have been postponed repeatedly in recent months. They could face the death penalty.
World Watch Monitor
Abraha was not arrested until three months after his colleagues, on 13 March, and then held for only one day. Security officials ordered him to report back daily, and on 24 March told him he would have to appear in court in the role of his choice: testify against the others, or be charged along with them.
On 26 March his father died.
Abraha gathered his family and travelled eight hours east by bus to bury him in their hometown of Kassala, on the border with Eritrea. And there he dropped off the radar, ditched his mobile phone, and waited.
Two weeks later, he returned to Khartoum and set his plan in motion. Nervously, he checked his surroundings before going to buy a ticket to Egypt.
With his wife, he exchanged notes on paper serviettes, which they soaked and discarded once read. Discreetly, they packed their children’s belongings, lest they tip off authorities at school.
Abraha then checked with a friendly security officer that his name was not on a watch list. And on 20 April, he told his children they would have a family picnic near the airport. Relatives – and kids – were surprised to learn they were saying goodbye.
In Egypt, Abraha is now involved in training for discipleship and church planting, and supervises 15 “house churches” among Sudanese refugees.
Over 31,000 Sudanese in Egypt are registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees, according to its August 2016 report. Unofficial estimates suggest there are well over one million.
Most have fled the ongoing violence in Darfur and the southern regions of Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains, bordering South Sudan.
But Abraha’s story is not unique.
Barnaba Timothous, who fled to Egypt three years earlier, had also been pressed to testify against Christian colleagues. Doing student campus ministry, he was accused of taking foreign money.
“I was told that if I would cooperate, nothing would happen to me,” he told World Watch Monitor. “But if not, nothing would protect me from them.”
Some people criticised him for his decision to leave. He did so quickly, taking one bag and telling no-one in his family. And though he stated he was not personally involved in ministry among Muslims, he refused to betray those he knew.
“I will not be involved in issues that hurt the body of Christ and bring suffering to innocent people, just because they follow Christ as saviour,” he said.
“The Islamic government of Sudan is persecuting the leaders of churches and ministries. And now our students no longer trust each other, fearful someone might report them.”
Timothous, who has since been joined by his mother and sister, is now working amongst students at several university campuses in Egypt.
World Watch Monitor has spoken with other Christian leaders who tell similar stories.
Excuse for crackdown
“The [Sudan] government wants Sharia and is cracking down on the Church,” said Kamal Fahmi, head of the religious freedom advocacy group Set My People Free.
He recalled President Omar al-Bashir’s threat, on the eve of South Sudan independence in 2011, to make Sudan a fully Islamic state, the removal of foreign NGOs thereafter, and the expulsion of South Sudanese in 2013.
“Authorities felt Pastors Hassan and Kuwa were shaming them, bringing a bad report,” Fahmi told World Watch Monitor.
“In the rebel areas, the Church is doing humanitarian work and is not involved in the conflict, but it does expose the atrocities the Sudanese government is committing.
“It will find any excuse to accuse them.”
Pastors have been arrested, churches have been destroyed, and land has been confiscated, according to the US State Department’s 2015 Report on International Religious Freedom.
And on 6 Oct. the European Parliament passed a resolution against Sudan, specifically naming the four detainees.
Noting the EU partnership with Sudan towards “better migration management”, the resolution “reaffirms that freedom of religion, conscience or belief is a universal human right that needs to be protected everywhere and for everyone … especially in the case of apostasy”.
But in January 2015, Sudan expanded its apostasy laws to include criticism of Muhammad’s wives or early companions.
Fahmi, who recently penned an open letter to the UN with the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe, links an oppressive religious climate to development issues, which, he says, “assaults the core of human nature”.
“Apostasy laws … have negative social and political consequences everywhere they are in force,” he wrote. “They create instability and inspire violence”.
“Without freedom to change beliefs, there is no religious freedom,” he told World Watch Monitor. “Going to paradise is not compulsory.”