Christians in Sudan have suffered decades of fierce persecution under 30 years of sharia law during the despotic rule of President Omar al-Bashir. But, since a popularly supported military coup ousted al-Bashir’s Islamist government two years ago, Sudan has seen remarkable changes that seem to herald a new dawn for religious freedom in the country.
After widespread street protests had erupted in December 2018, a military coup ousted Bashir’s Islamist government in April 2019 and a Transitional Military Council (TMC) was established in Sudan, appointing a civilian government. Since coming to power, the TMC has begun to take brave and decisive action to reform Sudanese law.
Five remarkable steps towards religious freedom in Sudan
In the first of three landmark developments since the coup, Sudan’s Interim Constitutional Declaration was signed on 4 August 2019. The agreement established a three-year transition period under a civilian government, the TMC, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and brought together Sudanese military leaders with a coalition of rebel groups, known as the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC).
This declaration marked the first point in many Sudanese Christians’ lifetimes that the country’s constitution does not make reference to Islam as the principal source of law and, importantly, the interim constitution states that, “every citizen has the right to freedom of religion or belief”.
Notorious apostasy law swept away in July 2020
Then, in July 2020, Christians rejoiced greatly, especially converts from Islam, when the wonderful news came that Sudan’s apostasy law, which carried a death penalty for leaving Islam (as in sharia), had finally been abolished. The Miscellaneous Amendments Act had been reviewed without objection in April by the new Sovereign Council, which replaced the Transitional Council as Sudan’s ruling body on 21 August 2019.
Sudanese Minister of Justice Nasr al-Din Abdel Bari said in his announcement that the Act repealed the apostasy law, protected freedoms and also granted previously-forbidden liberties. Other changes included allowing women to travel abroad with their children without the written consent of their husband or male family member, and criminalising female genital mutilation (FGM).
Monumental breakthroughs came with peace agreements in 2020
A third monumental breakthrough came on 31 August 2020, when Prime Minister Hamdok signed an historic peace accord with rebel groups. The agreement ended decades of bloody conflict in Darfur, where more than 300,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million forced from their homes since 2003.
The agreement also brought peace to the volatile border states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, which includes the Nuba Mountains – Sudan’s oldest Christian region. Both states had remained in dispute since South Sudan gained independence in 2011. More than 500,000 had died in the regions during the conflicts of the 1990s which saw aerial bombing, forced conversion to Islam, systematic mass rape, and the jailing of Christian leaders.
Then, just days later, on 3 September the TMC agreed in principle to separate religion and state after three decades of Islamic rule in the country. Prime Minister Hamdok and Abdelaziz Al-Hilu, the leader of the rebel SPLM-North faction, signed a declaration affirming that “The state shall not establish an official religion. No citizen shall be discriminated against based on their religion.”
Freedom of worship for all Sudanese people confirmed in October 2020
A fifth decisive step towards religious liberty came in October 2020, at a conference in Khartoum, where Christian and Muslim leaders signed the landmark International Religious Freedom Round Table Declaration aimed at promoting peace and freedom of religion in Sudan and promising freedom of worship for all Sudanese people.
“Change will not happen overnight”
Hopes for the transition to a peaceful democracy in Sudan have been raised high by this series of political and constitutional reforms. However, church property that was destroyed or confiscated under al-Bashir has not yet been restored or returned, apparently slowed by bureaucratic processes.
Many Christians may continue to face persecution in their communities as Sudan struggles to overcome its long legacy of systematic oppression. The TMC’s reforming and liberalising agenda has not been universally accepted, and has faced a backlash from hard-line Islamists in the country.
Three crushing decades of oppression under sharia law
Sudan, a country with more than 30 million Muslims (about 91% of the population), adopted sharia (Islamic law) in 1983 under President Jaafar al-Nimeiri. The decision provoked another civil war between the Arab Islamic government in the north of the country and the predominantly African population in the south, as the South tried to resist the imposition of sharia on its predominantly non-Muslim population, which included many Christians.
More than two million people in southern and central Sudan died in the civil war, up to the time of the peace agreement in 2005. It was estimated that up to five and a half million were displaced, mostly internally, with at least 350,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries as refugees.
Later, under Omar al-Bashir, who became President of Sudan in 1989 following a military coup, the use of sharia as the basis of law and government became more definite, and the Christian minority in the North (now estimated at 3%) came under intense persecution. Al-Bashir’s regime was supported by the extremist National Islamic Front led by Hassan al-Turabi and, in 1991, sharia was enforced in the Sudanese constitution, establishing the country as an Islamic state.
Apostasy punishable by death
In Islam, conversion is seen as equivalent to treason against state and hence punishable by death. According to all schools of sharia, mentally sane adult male apostates face the death penalty. The Maliki school of sharia, which predominates in Sudan, also prescribes a death sentence for sane adult female apostates, and holds that even inward unspoken apostasy is punishable. It allows just three days for repentance before the death sentence is implemented.
Under section 126 of the Sudan Criminal Law of 1991, apostasy was a criminal offence punishable by death. Representatives of the Sudanese government claimed that manifestation of apostasy was a threat to public order and should be prosecuted as high treason.
Sudan has carried out executions for apostasy in recent decades; more are known to have occurred in Sudan than in any other modern country. In 1985, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, a Muslim man in his mid-seventies, was hanged after a two hour trial for preaching a moderate and liberal form of Islam.
After a vision that Muslim clan chief, Abdalla Yousef, had in 1991, he and his entire clan of around 100 people became Christians. Despite assurances given to the church that the people were free to choose their religion, several of the converts, including Abdalla, were arrested in 1994 and sentenced to 100 lashes, after which they faced execution if they did not return to Islam. Abdalla Yousef and Mahanna Mohamed were executed by crucifixion in August of that year.
In 1994, Salvatore Ali, a captain in the Sudanese army who had converted to Christianity, was dismissed from his post, tried and sentenced to death for apostasy. He was placed under considerable pressure to return to Islam and was eventually helped by fellow Christians to leave the country.
Meriam Yahya Ibrahim was sentenced to death for apostasy from Islam in 2014 after marrying a Christian man. Though she had been brought up by her Christian mother as a Christian, the authorities claimed that she was a Muslim by birth because it was the religion of her estranged father. The accusation against her had been based on the Islamic concept that children take the religion of their father, therefore making her guilty of apostasy. An international outcry led to her eventual release, and her sentence was quashed in June 2014 by Sudan’s appeal court.
Other punishments for converts from Islam
Converts from Islam in Sudan are also persecuted in many other ways without it ending in a death sentence. Many have faced arrest, imprisonment, beatings, torture or forcible injection with unknown drugs.
A crucial time for prayer
As Sudan approaches crucial elections in 2022, the country’s government has called for national and international support.
Sudanese Christians, many having lived their entire lives under pressure and persecution, have learned what it means to patiently wait upon the Lord. It is a time for faithful prayer for all as we wait and trust alongside them for Sudan’s transition to a secular democracy with religious freedom for all to be peacefully fulfilled.