Critics of the Sudanese government say recent developments such as the handing back of property to churches and the release of a shipment of Bibles were merely “cosmetic” efforts to placate the international community into normalising relations.

Sudanese security officials arrested 13 Christians in the western region of Darfur on Saturday, 13 October.

The Christians were taken from a home they share in the city of Nyala, southwest Darfur, by officials belonging to the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) but it is not clear on what charges, a local source told World Watch Monitor. Three of them have since been released without an explanation, the source said.

Sudanese laws allow NISS to hold people in detention for up to four and a half months before they have to either charge or release them.

Meanwhile a church in Omdurman, near the capital Khartoum, has been told to hand over ownership of its properties to a state-appointed committee.

The government and the Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) have been in a long-standing dispute over ownership of the denomination’s properties, after the Ministry of Religious Affairs set up a rival land and buildings committee and charged it with the administration of SCOC’s property.

“The Omdurman police summoned the church’s leader on Monday [8 October] and ordered him to hand over leadership of the congregation to a rival committee,” a local source told World Watch Monitor, adding: “They want the congregation to vacate their compound.”

The president of SCOC, Ayouba Telyan, who is a member of the church, was also summoned but later released after he clarified that he was not the church’s leader.

The SCOC represents about 220,000 of Sudan’s one million Christians, in over a thousand congregations.

This summons comes two weeks after the government lost its court case against the church body and handed back ownership of 19 churches to SCOC.

Several other denominations, like the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC), are also in conflict with the government over ownership of properties, and have faced fines and the closure and destruction of church buildings.

World Watch Monitor’s source said Sudanese Christians feel the surprise verdict of the court in favour of the SCOC, the handing back of property and also the recent clearing of a shipment of Bibles through customs after a six-year delay were merely “cosmetic” efforts to placate the US and the rest of the international community into normalising relations.

Sudan has pushed for the normalisation of bilateral relations and its removal from the US’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, but rights groups have called on Washington to “put the brakes on”, saying there has been little evidence of progress in the area of human rights.

A delegation from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom visited Khartoum and North Darfur in May and heard from stakeholders “that there is no religious freedom” in Sudan.