The Dilemma of Freedom of Religion in Sudan

Editor’s Note: The following is an excellent commentary on the issue of religious freedom (or the lack thereof) in Sudan. The tragic case of Meriam Ibrahim has shown a spotlight on the lamentable human rights record of the current regime in power. Most people don’t realize how diverse Sudan is and the rich heritage it has in Christendom. Not only are the non-Muslim people of Sudan suffering under the current oppressive religious oligarchy, but we have seen in our work since 1997 that the government policy of “Islamization” in Sudan actually means “Arabization,” where cultural and tribal minorities within the Islamic fold are persecuted sometimes more rigorously than “infidels.” History shows the current situation is not likely to change while the current leadership holds power.

By Sudan Democracy First Group

From sudantribune.com

On 15 May, a Khartoum court sentenced 27-year old Mariam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag to death for apostasy for the supposed crime of converting to Christianity. The sentence was handed down after Ms. Ishag — who was pregnant at the time and has since given birth in prison – refused to recant her faith. Sadly, her case represents a pattern of violations of fundamental religious freedoms in Sudan, which instituted the death penalty for apostasy in 1991. This is the case in only three other African countries: Nigeria (in some northern states), Mauritania and Somalia.

Omar al Bashir

Sudan’s dictator, Omar al Bashir, is under indictment by the ICC for war crimes against humanity.

Such religious intolerance in Sudan is an oxymoron, as the country, even with the loss of South Sudan, still remains one of the most diverse countries in Africa. Sudan is home to sizable minorities with distinct cultural heritages and languages; as well as religious minorities, including Christians of various denominations, and followers of traditional African religions. But since 1989, following the Islamist–sponsored military coup led by President Omar al-Bashir, the Government has treated Islam as the official state religion, instilling in the country’s laws, institutions and policies. Since, thousands of non-Muslims have experienced discrimination at the hands of the state. Human rights groups have documented numerous cases of state-sponsored discrimination, including the destruction or confiscation of churches. Thousands of non-Muslims have also been forced to convert to Islam, priests and church leaders have been persecuted, and thousands of Christians punished according to Sharia law.

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A church building in the Nuba Mountains

Yet, Christianity boasts a long and rich history in northern Africa, including northern Sudan, dating back to the first century. With the beginning of the sixth century and through successful missionary work, people with influence and power in northern Sudan began to adopt Christianity, eventually forming the three Christian kingdoms of Nubatia, Mukara and Alwa by AD580. As has been documented by Giovanni Vantini in his book “Christianity in Sudan”, Christianity officially took root in Sudan in AD543, when a missionary sent by the Byzantine empress Theodora arrived in Nubatia, and started preaching Christianity. It has even been reported that the first Sudanese to become Christian was a minister in the Meroitic kingdom, in AD35.

Despite the collapse Nubatia, Mukara and Alwa following the beginning of the spread of Islam in the 16th century, it is clear that Christianity has shaped, and continues to shape, the life of many peoples in Sudan. Unfortunately, there are no credible statistics on the number of Christians, Muslims and followers of other religions in Sudan, as the issue was heavily politicized before the independence of South Sudan. However, various churches have indicated there are upwards of three million Christians in contemporary Sudan. Still, Christians find themselves directly discriminated against by state institutions, particularly in relation to access to such basic rights as education, information, and land (on which to build churches).

Within the legal system, almost all of Sudan’s Muslim religious minorities remain under the constant threat of accusations of heresy and apostasy. Article 126 of the Sudanese 1991 Penal Code is designed specifically to oppress any form of dissent against the state’s official interpretation of Islam. The danger of such an article is not only that it can be used against any group that is deemed heretic (or suspected of heresy) by the state, but also, and more critically, it destroys any notion of free thought and stifles human imaginations.

US Embassy in Khartoum (photo courtesy of Department of State)

The U.S. embassy in Khartoum

Prosecutions of apostasy, such as Ms. Ishag’s, have a long and disturbing history in Sudan. In 1984, Mahmud Muhammad Taha, the founder of the Republican Brothers movement was arrested for calling for an end to Sharia law in Sudan. He was eventually executed for apostasy on 18 January 1985. More recently, on September 17, 2011, police arrested a group named “the Messiah group”, who follow a man who proclaimed himself as the Mahdi, messianic redeemer of the Islamic faith. The courts charged the group with apostasy under Article 126 of the penal code, later ordering them to renounce their beliefs in order to avoid the death sentence. Though the group repented in order to secure their freedom, they continue to insist to this day that they have not changed their beliefs. Similarly, on July 29, 2011, police arrested 150 people in Khartoum who belong to the Quranist sect (Quranist is a term used to describe those who follow only the Qur’an and its teachings, “Nothing more and nothing less”). They too were charged with apostasy, and eventually released from prison on September 19, 2011, after they declared that they had repented. However, the group also stated that they had publicly repented only in order to save their lives, but they did not change their beliefs.

These widespread violations continue, even though Sudan’s 2005 Interim National Constitution provides for freedom of religion in Sudan. In Article 38, on Freedom of Creed and Worship, the Constitution assures that “[e]very person shall have the right to the freedom of religious creed and worship … no person shall be coerced to adopt such faith, that he/she does not believe in, nor to practice rites or services to which he/she does not voluntarily consent.” Sudan also ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1986. The ICCPR is legally binding and is monitored by the Human Rights Council. Furthermore, Sudan is a member of the UN, an organization that recognized the importance of freedom of religion or belief in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition, Article 27(3) of Sudan’s Constitution expressly states that international human rights instruments ratified by Sudan shall become part of the Constitution. In 2007, with the formation of a Commission for the Rights of Non-Muslims, Sudan seemed to take a step forward in observing its obligations to preserve freedom of religion, but in July 2011 the Commission was dissolved and no mechanism has since replaced it.

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A church of Darfur refugees

While Sudan’s legal system continues to lack laws prohibiting anti-religious discrimination and harassment — a system under which Muslims are also repeatedly persecuted for any heretical views or if they convert from Islam — the courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy since enacting the 1991 Penal Code. The government tends to commute death sentences to less harsher punishment, and sometimes the case completely disappears from courts. This is perhaps due to increased international attention and pressure, following a series of embarrassing court sentences denounced by human rights organizations in recent years.

These mixed messages (read an interview with Hasan Al-Turabi the real author of 1991 Penal Code) from the Sudanese government only mask the reality that the threat of capital punishment against apostasy is designed to intimidate and subjugate political opponents. The application of harsh punishments also has a very sinister bent, as it is predominantly imposed on Sudanese who are perceived to be non-Arab, and who come from poor socio-economic backgrounds. Mariam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, who is married to a southern Sudanese man and her newborn daughter and her 20-month old son represent this only too well.

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