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'Religious discrimination in Sudan creates space for extremism': SDFG

March 16 - 2016 KAMPALA
Demolished church building in Khartoum (Radio Tamazuj)
Demolished church building in Khartoum (Radio Tamazuj)

Since the National Islamic Front took power by military coup in 1989, Sudan has witnessed a significant clampdown on religious freedom, the Sudan Democracy First Group (SDFG) says in a new publication on 14 March. The group warns that this policy is creating space for the growth of radical extremist groups.

The SDFG points in its report to a number of incidents that confirm the ongoing suppression of religious freedom in the country.

The most recent incident occurred in the early morning of 18 December last year, when members of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) detained Pastor Hassan Abdelrahim Kodi (49), Secretary-General of the Sudanese Church of Christ, and Pastor Telal Ngosi (44) at their homes in Khartoum.

They were taken to an unknown destination. Their families have been prevented from visiting them and access to lawyers and legal aid has been denied. To date, no charges have been brought against them.

Erosion of religious freedom’

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed by the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, headed by the South Sudanese rebel leader John Garang, in January 2005, did protect a certain margin of freedom. However, with the secession of South Sudan in July 2011, a steady erosion of the space created by the CPA took place.

Even before the secession, President Omar Al Bashir “made it clear that there was little intention to maintain the freedoms revitalised by the CPA”, the Democracy First Group states. Al Bashir declared that “If South Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity… the sharia (Islamic law) will be the main source for legislation, Islam the official religion. and Arabic the official language”.

The president’s statement was a clear indication that a crackdown against religious freedom was in preparation for the post-secession period, and, in particular, against Christians, according to the SDFG. “This revealed itself immediately after the outbreak of war in the Two Areas (South Kordofan and Blue Nile) in mid-2011 when Khartoum witnessed an increasing number of attacks on churches. It seemed the authorities perceived churches as spaces where unwanted groups of people from the Two Areas -where Christianity is practised- could congregate.”

Attacks

In June 2011, an extremist group burned a building belonging to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sudan in Omdurman. At the beginning of 2012, a compound of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in El Jereif West in Khartoum was set on fire. No investigations into the incidents took place.

In 2012 as well, local authorities in Khartoum demolished the premises of the Episcopal Church of El Haj Yousef on the pretext that it had been built without planning permission from authorities, despite the church was established there in the 1970s.

In July 2014, a church of the Church of Jesus Christ of Sudan in Teiba El Ahamda in northern Khartoum was demolished by the authorities. In December that year, the authorities stripped the Evangelical Church in Khartoum North of a large portion of its land and destroyed some of its buildings on the pretext of allocating the land to investment. This effectively stopped the activities of the church.

The authorities also closed down the Pentecostal Church, located in Said Abdelrahman Street in central Khartoum without giving any reasons. In October 2015, local authorities demolished the buildings of the Lutheran Evangelical Church in West Omdurman once again under the cover of “lack of planning permission” despite the Church having been there since 1990s.

In addition to the attack on churches, harassment against Christian clerics continued in the same period, the SDFG relates.

In July 2013 the NISS arrested five priests of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. They were members of the elected Management Committee for the Church, and were accused of disturbing public order and social peace. They were later released on warranty without charges - but only after the Ministry of Guidance and Religious Affairs dissolved their Committee and appointed a new body to manage the Church.

The Sudanese authorities detained Zonjal Abraham Mikhail, a deacon of the Evangelical Church, and withdrew his Sudanese passport in October 2013. The NISS also detained Anba Ilya, Bishop of the Church of Khartoum, hours before the celebration of Christmas that year.

NISS officers arrested the visiting South Sudanese priests Yat Michael and Peter Yen in December 2014, on the grounds that they had sent a letter to the Office of Religious Affairs at the Ministry of Guidance and Religious Affairs, enquiring about the reasons for the arrests of some religious leaders. Both were charged with spying and incitement of war against the state. They were released in August, and managed to return to South Sudan. In November 2015 NISS issued an arrest warrant for them, claiming that new evidence had been obtained.

The SDFG further points to the “broader state practice which has further undermined the religious rights of Sudanese Christians. Since 2011, for example, the government has stopped the celebration of Christmas as an official holiday, alongside other non-Muslim religious occasions, including refusing to broadcast these celebrations through the state-own media outlets.”

Ethnic-religious targeting

The most systematic and government-driven religious discrimination and attacks against religious freedoms, however, have been suffered by the people of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan and in Blue Nile State, the Sudanese activist group says. “The security apparatus appears to consider their churches in Khartoum as centres of undesirable gatherings and their leaders as opinion leaders who are categorised as security threats given their influence in their parishes. This combination of ethnic and religious targeting and discrimination against Sudanese citizens of Nuba Mountains/South Kordofan and Blue Nile origin has become a key tool of the political conflict in the two regions.

“Such actions by the regime aim at generating support from extremist Islamic circles and misleading the Sudanese public so that the actual causes of the wars in the two regions are misunderstood. The result of this systematic religious discrimination is not only the exposure of citizens from Nuba Mountains/South Kordofan and Blue Nile to a double oppression (ethnic and religious targeting) but also the masking of historic failures of governance, political and social grievances and uneven development which are the foundation of the conflict.”

Hazards

The Sudanese think-tank warns for a “major hazard of this religious targeting” which is “the creation of space for the growth of radical extremist groups.

“Sudan is increasingly seen as a place of study, contact with and staging ground for, the global jihadi movement. Formal government encouragement of targeting and discriminating Christians and other religions is providing a safe womb for the further growth of extremism,” the report reads.


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