The bulldozers arrived after lunch on May 7, a Sunday, not long before the afternoon service was to have begun. Within hours, the church had been destroyed.
The church, which belonged to the Sudanese Church of Christ denomination, was the last church left in Soba al Radi, a poor area on the outskirts of the capital Khartoum. Six years ago, there were 13 churches in this suburb. They have all been demolished by the government.
“Now we gather at the church’s yard to pray, because we fear the remains of the building may fall on our heads,” said Pastor Elias Abdelrahim, who managed the church and must still look after his 200-strong congregation.
Sudan’s government denies the church was singled out because it was Christian. In a statement, it said the church was built on land allocated for residential use. The church is among 25 others the state marked for demolition in a June 2016 letter, claiming they were all built on land zoned for other purposes.
But, according to Abdelrahim, the church was first built on empty land in 1986, and they have been trying to get legal documentation ever since.
Although Sudanese law upholds religious diversity, the reality for the country’s Christian minority is quite different.
“Christianity is not welcome in Sudan,” said Muhanad Nur, a lawyer who routinely defends cases involving Christians. “It seems as if every week I am hearing about another case of Christians being persecuted … You can’t imagine how this government works sometimes. Human rights defenders, Christians, among others, are just locked up without any consideration of the consequences.”
Nur, who is representing the demolished church, observes that several mosques in the Soba al Radi area had been given land registration certificates, but not the church, despite its long tenure.
The United Nations’ independent expert on human rights in Sudan, Aristide Nononsi, echoed Nur’s concerns. In a recent press statement, Nononsi said Sudan needed to work harder to protect freedom of religion.
“I refer here to the destruction of churches and places of worship by the [security service], which was also used to intimidate, detain and arrest Christian religious leaders.”
The targeting of churches and Christians increased after South Sudan gained independence in 2011. Once the predominantly Christian South Sudanese population seceded, those Christians who remained in Sudan had less institutional support and protection against state authorities.
In April 2013, the minister of guidance and endowments announced that no licences would be granted for building new churches in Sudan, citing a decrease in the South Sudanese population. Two years later, government officials stiffened penalties for apostasy and blasphemy.
It’s not just buildings that are being targeted, but people too. Yunan Abdullah, a church elder in Khartoum North, was killed when an armed group attacked the Evangelical School of Sudan. According to local sources, Abdullah rushed over from the neighbouring Bahri Evangelical Church to help to defend the school but was stabbed by one of the attackers.
Pastor Hassan Abdelrahim Tawor, from the Nuba Mountains, has spent the past 17 months in Khartoum’s notorious Kober prison after being convicted of undermining the Constitution, espionage and spreading false information.
Of particular concern to prosecutors was his association with an aid worker who was interviewing Christians in the Nuba Mountains. The aid worker, Petr Jasek, from the Czech Republic, was also arrested.
To general surprise, Abdulrahim was pardoned by President Omar al-Bashir, along with another Christian activist from Darfur on May 11, just a few days after the Soba al Radi church was destroyed. The timing of their release is unlikely to have been coincidental, but was perhaps an attempt to ward off further negative headlines about the government’s treatment of its Christian minority.
The increasing persecution of Christians is at loggerheads with the October conclusions of the National Dialogue, a state-led peace initiative ostensibly designed to end Sudan’s internal conflicts. The conference participants, including government and some opposition parties, concluded the event by issuing a national document that includes references to religious diversity, freedom of worship and ending religious discrimination in Sudan.
Abdulrahim, for one, is not convinced. “It’s a difficult time for us,” he said. “Even with our release from prison last week, we are still not free.”
This article was produced by Nuba Reports, a media organisation that focuses exclusively on the internal wars in Sudan
Realpolitik favours al-Bashir as Sudan comes in from the cold
After decades of being an international pariah, Sudan is on the brink of being welcomed back into the international community — and President Omar al-Bashir is desperate not to mess anything up.
Just before he left office, United States president Barack Obama announced that the US would ease sanctions that have crippled Sudan’s economy, an apparent reward for Sudan’s contribution to counterterrorism efforts in the region. But there was a catch: the sanctions would be reviewed again by the state department on July 12.
That deadline is fast approaching and al-Bashir, who is still wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, is bending over backwards to ensure that his country passes the test.
He has declared a unilateral ceasefire in the Nuba Mountains, where a civil war has raged ever since the secession of South Sudan in 2011. He has willingly participated in the so-called National Dialogue, which brought together government and selected opposition leaders in a bid to mediate disputes. Earlier this month, he announced a new “government of national accord”, which included ministers and parliamentarians from outside the ruling National Congress Party, though, naturally, the NCP retained key portfolios such as defence, finance, oil and foreign affairs.
“Sudan has fulfilled all requirements and therefore lifting of the sanctions is considered a fair matter,” said the information minister.
Not everyone is quite so sure. International advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Enough Project have said that lifting sanctions is premature, and al-Bashir’s biggest domestic rivals have also voiced concerns.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, the rebel group taking on the government in the Nuba Mountains, said al-Bashir should not be given “a free lunch”. They said the lifting of sanctions must be delayed by a further six months and should be linked to tangible progress in addressing humanitarian emergencies,
halting conflict, ending human rights violations, achieving
democratic transformation, stopping attacks on Sudanese Christians, and releasing political prisoners.
As real as these concerns may be, the realpolitik remains in al-Bashir’s favour. Sudan has become a major partner in the African chapter of the US’s “war on terror”, and al-Bashir’s administration enjoys strong support from regional superpower Saudi Arabia.
Like it or not, Sudan won’t be a pariah for much longer. — Simon Allison