Few Christians in Sudan will enjoy Christmas this year as government authorities continue to crackdown on churches and parishioners alike.
Just a week before Christmas, security forces arrested Reverend Kowa Shamaal and Reverend Hassan Abdelraheem from the Sudan Church of Christ denomination at their homes in Khartoum North and Omdurman, respectively. No reason for the arrest has been given for the two church leaders who come from the Nuba Mountain region in South Kordofan State, according to news reports.
On October 17th, government officials warned the administration of the Lutheran church in Al-Thawra, Omdurman, that it will be demolished because they want to restructure the area. Without media attention except for a few Facebook posts and pleads from churchgoers, Sudanese authorities bulldozed the 33-year-old church building just three days later. "They gave us a notice that the church will be demolished after 72 hours," said Pastor Gabriel Koko of the Omdurman Lutheran Church. Pastor Koko added that they were in the process of attempting to register the church when the demolition happened.
"The government asks you for consent from the local committee which in turn will not agree unless the higher council for Dawah and Guidance gives permission and vice versa, you are lost in the middle," the frustrated pastor told Nuba Reports. Now parishioners worship outside in Omdurman's blazing sun, singing hymns with the rubble of their church piled next to them. Two more churches were destroyed that month after alleged arsonists burnt down another church in Gedaref, Eastern Sudan, and security officers illegally demolished another church in Al-Thawra, Omdurman, according to human rights reports. "The Lutheran church in Gedaref was demolished by the police in 2006, then rebuilt and now burnt to ashes, nothing remains of the church which had a 300-member constituency," said Samir Makeen, a lawyer closely involved in this case. Makeen travelled to eastern Sudan to follow-up on the case proceedings and found that the police force was largely uncooperative.
"The case file at Rowena police station cites an unknown assailant although I believe that the police can easily catch the arsonists, but they seemed unprepared to do anything regarding this case," added Makeen who has worked on similar cases before.
South Sudan's independence and the fate of Christianity in Sudan
The Gedaref-based church is at least the third church to be set ablaze while another four churches were demolished or partially demolished since a referendum in January 2011 that led to South Sudan's independence from the country. Just a month before the referendum, Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir told supporters in Gedaref that Sudan will not be religiously diverse if South Sudan separates and the constitution will only be guided by Shariah law. "On the eve of South Sudan's secession in July 2011, Sudanese phone users received a text message (from the state-influenced telecommunication companies) saying that Sudan is now 97% Muslim and since then we've felt that we don't have a place in this country," said Samia Joseph*, a Nuba human rights activist.
In April 2013, the Minister of Guidance and Endowments, Al-Fatih Taj El-Sir, announced in parliament that no new licenses would be granted to build churches in Sudan, citing a decrease in the mainly Christian South Sudanese population, according to news reports. While those in South Sudan started to enjoy the opportunity to practice their faith without oppression since independence in 2011, Christians in Sudan have faced greater religious persecution. Even the Christmas holiday has become challenging to celebrate. "Christmas is no longer a holiday in Sudan, Christian civil servants and students used to get three days off work, but now we can't even celebrate Christmas properly. Last year the police stopped our celebration at four p.m.," added Joseph. M.M., a Nuba hailing from Um-Dorein county in Southern Kordofan State and affiliated with a church in Omdurman said authorities have essentially stopped acknowledging the existence of other religions other than Islam after the 2011 secession.
"They cancelled Christian studies from public schools and many parents had to resort to the church for religious teachings," said M.M. who insisted on using her initials to protect her security. Nabil Adib, a well renowned human rights lawyer, said that 2012 saw a sustained escalation of religious persecution in Sudan in the form of land-grabbing and demolishing of churches and mass arrests of church-related employees, including foreign and Sudanese pastors. "Since then, around 200 foreign pastors or church-affiliates were rounded up and arrested by the security apparatus and were given two choices, either leave the country and give up all belongings or continue to be detained and face charges," said Adib adding that all of them chose the first option and fled the country.
State security's infamous "religious security" unit have arrested dozens of Christian leaders, including five Anglican pastors in Khartoum after the Anglican Cultural Center was shut down and all the books in its spacious library were confiscated.
In 2014, three churches in Khartoum states were demolished under Bashir's zero-tolerance policy towards religious pluralism. The policy also acts as a veneer for land-grabbing opportunities with investors affiliated to the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), according to several Christian sources in the capital. The Pentecostal church on Sayed Abdel-Rahman street in Khartoum, for example, lies on a valuable and very expensive piece of land which was sold as a house in the 1990s.
Adib was involved in the land sale for the church almost two decades ago and again involved when state security took over the church land last year without recourse to the law. "We filed a constitutional case citing the illegal acquisition of the Pentecostal church without any allegations for persecution on religious basis" said Adib who added that they have received no response for almost a year now. National security currently occupy this land, one of the most expensive plots in the capital, Adib said, even confiscating personal belongings found on the land, such as cars. The Anglican Church in Khartoum North faces a similar fate after the state replaced a democratically-elected Church committee in 2014 with a government-appointed one in a bid to acquire the large Church land plot.
According to Adib, the government's land-grabbing schemes usually involve authorities appointing a new, state-controlled, administrative committee that takes over the church and eventually sells the land to investors. "The church became a scene of constant chaos as the churchgoers would find their prayers interrupted by investors who would tell them that they now own this plot of land and they have a court order to tear it down," said Muhanad Al-Nour, a lawyer who represents the elected committee. Private investors purchased the church land on Baladiya Avenue claiming the sale was made through the church committee, allegedly unaware of the existence of another, legitimate non-government affiliated committee, Al-Nour said.
"The Anglican sect is wealthy, they have a lot of property in the most expensive areas of Khartoum, so not only were Christians targeted especially the South Sudanese, Nuba and Egyptian-born Christians who make up the Anglican church constituency, but the high-value lands were targeted for their value," Adib added. To date, Adib concedes, no church property has been converted for commercial purposes but expects this to take place in the near future. On 1 July 2015, over 300 police officers arrived with an engineer tasked to facilitate the demolishing of a block where a school for the Anglican Church sits.
Al-Nour and Pastor Hafiz Fassaha attempted to stop them. "I argued with them and they were angry because they had to stop demolishing a church building; so angry that they arrested me and the pastor," recalled Al-Nour. Police arrested Al-Nour while the pastor had his hands shackled and escorted by police on foot through the market to the police station to further humiliate him. They remained in a cell for seven hours and were charged with "obstructing a public servant".
Al-Nour confirmed that he and the pastor currently face these charges that could imprison them for six months. Two months ago, the administrative court ruled that the Ministry of Guidance and Endowments needs to be held responsible for the sale of the Anglican church land as it allowed two committees to simultaneously operate. Despite this, the ministry challenged the court's decision and is expected to ignore the court ruling, Al-Nour said. Pastor Yat Michael Ruot was one of the first to bring attention to the dangers facing the Anglican Church in Khartoum North. In late December 2014, he was arrested by the NISS from a church-organized seminar.
A month later, Pastor Peter Yein was also arrested when he tried to inquire about his colleague's detention. After nearly five months in Sudan's high-security Kober Prison, they were charged in May 2015 under a flurry of litigation including: undermining the constitution, espionage and religious incitement. Facing the death penalty, the two were eventually acquitted and released in August this year. Both fled the country shortly after. Khartoum's high court has now challenged the decision and re-opened the case, Pastor Yen told Nuba Reports.
"We were accused of 'christianization' although we are pastors and we were doing our job which is to spread the message inside the church, [Sudan] is where we lived and worked for years without trouble," said Yen. Their lawyers believe that they will remain unsafe as long as they remain in East Africa and face the risk of extradition to Sudan where they will face imprisonment. The criminal court has since issued an arrest warrant for both pastors. While some of his Christian colleagues have either fled persecution or remain incarcerated, Pastor Koko continues to hold prayers in the open air. There is no alternative. "After the demolition we asked [authorities] for alternative land," Pastor Koko told Nuba Reports. "We will continue praying outdoors until the authorities react."
* The real name has been changed to protect the source.