Total population 45 million. Muslims 91 per cent; Christians 5.4 per cent. Within this community, Christians of the Coptic, Greek, Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Church as well as Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventist, and a range of other Pentecostal and Evangelical churches are found. There are also Buddhists, Hindus, Bahá’ís, followers of indigenous religions.
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2020
Sudan’s track record of human rights under Omar al-Bashir, who was forced to step down in 2019, was appalling. Sunni interpretation of Islamic sharia was the source of law in the 2005 Constitution. As a result, religious minorities belonging to different faiths and Islamic sects were oppressed systematically. Different Christians were targeted including churches, properties, and businesses. The regime was involved in serious human rights violations, routinely using live ammunition against unarmed protesters, detaining activists, and censorship. A small Shi’a minority was also systematically discriminated and harassed by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS).
However, Sudan witnessed a huge breakthrough when al-Bashir was forced to step down and replaced by a military council. In August 2019 civilian and military leadership signed the Draft Constitutional Charter that included several provisions protecting the right to freedom of religious belief and worship “in accordance with the requirements of the law and public order.” It made no reference to sharia as a source of law.
On 12 July 2020, Sudan abolished the apostasy law, public flogging and alcohol ban for non-Muslims. “We [will] drop all the laws violating the human rights in Sudan,” Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari said.
Then in September 2020 Sudan’s transitional government agreed a deal with rebel groups which ended 30 years of rule under Islamic law and Islam as the official state religion. “The state shall not establish an official religion,” says the agreement. “No citizen shall be discriminated against based on their religion. For Sudan to become a democratic country where the rights of all citizens are enshrined, the constitution should be based on the principle of ‘separation of religion and state’, in the absence of which the right to self-determination must be respected.” There was an agreement to form an independent national commission for religious freedom and a Ministry for Peace and Human Rights.
Islamist clerics took to social media to denounce the proposals; changing a constitution is easier than changing a cultural mind-set. Christians will continue to experience pressure from society to give up their faith. So, despite some improvements, as when a court found eight church leaders innocent of charges that have hung over them for three years, some religious groups still have concerns and are yet to benefit from these changes.
There have been cases of discrimination and violence against Christians. On 6 June 2020, a local imam asked his followers to ‘cleanse’ Muslim land from Christians. The resulting violence left several Christians injured. On 20 June one South Sudanese Christian was killed and four seriously injured in another attack. when a mob attacked in the Shagla area of Omdurman, west of Khartoum, on 20th June 2020. A church building under construction was set on fire in August 2020; it had previously been attacked by extremists four times between December 2019 and January 2020.
Despite the abolition of apostasy law, a group of NGOs say that the changes will be ineffective until and unless grassroot groups particularly, women are involved in the decision-making process. Open Doors has called on the international community to invest in programmes that empower minority faith adherents, especially minority faith leaders, training them to understand their rights and how they can contribute to the building of the new Sudan.
FCDO Human Rights Report 2020
Apostasy (which carried the death penalty) was decriminalised in July and there were efforts to facilitate inter-faith dialogue. For example, the Juba Peace Agreement, signed by the Government of Sudan and a number of armed groups in October, mandated the establishment of an independent commission for religious freedom. While these were important steps towards promoting freedom of religion or belief in Sudan, further reforms remained outstanding, including amending status laws discriminating against women and girls, ending flogging as punishment for religious crimes, and reforming blasphemy laws.
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2019
Sudan has a poor human rights record, with FoRB as well as freedom of expression and association severely limited. The majority of Sudan’s 97% Muslim population is Sunni, but Sufi orders are strong, and some Muslims of the Salafi movement also reside in the country. Sudan’s largest minority religious community is Christian, but they only account for 3% of its population. Within this community, Christians of the Coptic, Greek, Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Church as well as Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventist, and a range of other Pentecostal and Evangelical churches are found.
After more than 30 years in power, Omar al-Bashir was ousted as head of state on 11 April 2019, being replaced by the Transitional Military Council. While the protests that removed him were predominantly driven by an economic crisis, they were also fuelled by popular discontent with his repressive government – including its severe restrictions on religious freedom and other human rights. While the protests gave many in Sudan new hope, it is apparent that violations of human rights continue to take place. Most notably, on 3 June 2019, members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), formerly known as the Janjaweed militia, massacred at least 128 unarmed civilians, participating in the rape of many more.
On 4 August 2019, the Transitional Military Council and Forces for Freedom and Change agreed on a constitutional declaration. This declaration, however, did not include many new guarantees for rights and failed to mention religious freedom. Without new protections for FoRB, and the subsequent removal of Sharia, religious minorities are still at risk. There are fears that the transition has been hijacked by radical Islamists, which will in turn damage the prospects for inclusivity.
Violations against Christians manifest itself through anti-Christian preaching, the criminalization of apostasy, the enactment of blasphemy laws, as well as the destruction of churches and property in Sudan. Christian converts often face the most intense persecution, facing additional pressure from family and neighbours in their community, family and private life. Over the past three decades, the Sudanese government has been accused of supporting radical Islamic militants. Most obviously, the state attempted an Islamisation of the Christian community living in the Nuba mountain region. Religious groups must register with the government as non-profit NGOs and face extreme surveillance of their activities and personnel. Female Christians are targeted, with instances of arrest for crimes such as ‘’indecent dressing’’ reported.
The government previously rejected church permits, closing, seizing and even demolishing buildings in the process. In 2016, the government created a list of 27 churches it intended to demolish, a practice that was widely condemned within the international community. There was continued state interference with church buildings and congregations throughout 2018 – from a church demolition in February to government interference with denominational committees (committees elected by those attending the church/churches), and detaining and fining church leaders objecting to this interference in November, April and October. Sudanese security officials arrested 13 Christians in the western region of Darfur on 13 October 2018.
Sudan’s small Shia community and those of local religious beliefs and traditions have also experienced persecution. The National Congress Party government implemented a strict theological interpretation of Islam, imposing Sharia on all citizens and establishing a harsh criminal code. Members of minority Muslim communities have, subsequently, been charged with apostasy for expressing theological views that differ from the government’s preferred interpretation. They have been dismissed from jobs, as well as facing ill treatment, such as beating and torture, as a result of their differing beliefs. In particular, government officials viewed Shia communities through a geopolitical lens as enmeshed with Iran. The government has also repressed members of the Quranist community and Republic Brothers and Sisters, in addition to harassing students to follow certain Islamic practices. The government also attempted to forcibly prevent adherence to atheism or secularism.
FCO Human Rights Report 2019
There were positive developments with regard to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Sudan, with a UK co-hosted event in Khartoum leading to the lifting of restrictions on the opening hours of Christian schools in January. Later in the year, the new Sudanese Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, issued a decree allowing employees of public institutions to leave work on Sundays to attend church, and declaring Christmas Day a national holiday for the first time in a decade. However, there were still causes for concern, with legislative hurdles for the operation of non-Muslim religious buildings, which resulted in the prosecution of members of minority groups, including of eight church leaders who faced charges of trespass during 2019.
At the end of the year, the UK was concerned by reports that three churches in Blue Nile State had been burned down. Through project work, the UK worked to strengthen the effectiveness of the National Assembly in developing policies that better serve minority religious groups, and to ensure that Sudanese policies and legislation regarding FoRB are brought in line with international standards.