Senior Sudanese and US officials are due to meet today (22 Sep.) in New York to discuss a possible partial lifting of sanctions on Khartoum, Sudanese media reports have said.

The hint at possible “rapprochement” between Washington and Khartoum comes despite continued human rights violations by the latter; the Islamist regime is currently detaining several activists, and also two pastors facing the death penalty on charges of “espionage”.

The US State Department on Tuesday (20 Sep.) welcomed Khartoum’s “cooperation” in fighting Islamic extremist groups. A statement said Sudan in recent months had taken “important steps” to take on the Islamic State group and other such organisations, Voice of America reported.

Meanwhile, a trial of four men, including two Sudanese church leaders and a foreign aid worker, was due to continue yesterday (21 Sep.) in Khartoum, with Sudan’s prosecution accusing the defendants of highlighting alleged Christian suffering in war-ravaged areas of the country.

The four defendants are a Czech Christian aid worker named Petr Jasek; Rev. Hassan Abduraheem Kodi Taour and Rev. Kuwa Shamal, pastors originally from the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan; and Abdulmonem Abdumawla Issa Abdumawla, a Darfuri graduate student.

Former Bishop of Kadugli Diocese of South Kordofan, Reverend Andudu Adam Elnail, was quoted by Fox News urging Washington to demand the release of the men, whose detention he said was symptomatic of Sudan’s treatment of its Christian population.

“We call for their protection and immediate release and urge that the UN, US government – including Congress – and other world communities demand the freedom of these two men of God and other prisoners,” said Elnail, currently based in South Carolina; he fled Sudan in 2011 after government forces allegedly burned down his property.

“The government is not interested in the Christian religion. There is no freedom for us, we cannot build churches, we are treated as second-class citizens,” Elnail added.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson from the US State Department said senior officials at the US Embassy in Khartoum have been tracking this case since the pastors were arrested and have repeatedly raised concerns.

“We are committed to working with countries to make tangible improvements in respect for religious freedom and continue to look for opportunities to address these issues,” the spokesperson said.

Following South Sudan’s independence in 2011, President Omar al-Bashir – wanted by the ICC for crimes including genocide – has reasserted Sudan as an Islamic state governed by Sharia.

According to Open Doors’ 2016 World Watch List, Sudan is ranked 8th in a list of 50 countries where Christians come under the most pressure. The country has a rating of “extreme” and for the past two years has remained among the top 10 offenders.