Both during and after the plebiscite for South Sudan’s independence in 2011, President al Bashir stated repeatedly that Sudan’s new constitution will be based 100% on Shari’a and that the ethnically and religiously diverse nation will be Arabic and Islamic.
For Sudan’s Christian community, an outworking of this explicit promise to erode religious and ethnic diversity has been the demolition churches, at the same time as permission to apply for new church building licences is withheld. The targeting of places of worship is just one example of ongoing repression of Christians and other religious minorities in the country.
A case in point: on 21 October 2015, a church building in Omdurman that was used by the Lutheran and Lutheran Evangelical Church was demolished. In the same week, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in Gadaref, East Sudan was burned down by unknown arsonists.
Legal and Political Context
The government of Sudan has repeatedly used the independence of South Sudan as an excuse to pursue an accelerated agenda of Islamization and Arabization. In 2013, the Ministry for Guidance and Endowments, which oversees religious affairs in the country, announced that no new church licences would be issued due to a lack of worshipers and an increase in abandoned churches after South Sudan seceded. This policy was reiterated in July 2014, just weeks after Sudan was the target of a successful international campaign to free Meriam Ibrahim, a young, pregnant mother who was sentenced to death for apostasy. The government’s defiant statement appeared to be in response to international pressure for Sudan to protect the rights of its religious minorities. Once again the government justified its policy as being a response to the changes in religious demography since South Sudanese Christians left Sudan in 2010.
Confiscation and demolition of places of worship
While the Ministry of Guidance and Endowments stopped issuing church licences, local government (particularly in Khartoum and Omdurman) continued confiscating and demolishing church properties, ostensibly to make way for development projects.
This was the case for the Lutheran and Lutheran Evangelical Church in Omdurman; local officials informed church leaders the building was listed for demolition on 20 October due to development work in the area. After appealing to the State Governor, church leaders were assured the building would not be affected.
However, it was demolished the next day, while a mosque less than 100 meters away on the same plot of land was left standing. This is not the first time a Christian place of worship and a Muslim place of worship have been treated differently.
Current government policy contradicts constitutional guarantees
It is important to note that the demolition affected a church with an active congregation, and not to the abandoned church buildings that government ministers cited as justification for their prohibitive policy.
Furthermore, it occurred despite provisions in article 6 of the 2005 Interim Constitution listing sundry rights, not only for individuals, but also for religious communities, including the right to own property.
The upshot is that the congregation in Omdurman, like many others in Sudan, has been left without a place of worship and deprived of a remedy, as it is no longer possible to register for a new church building licence. The lasting effect of these policies is that the number of legally recognised Christian places of worship is being steadily reduced.
Although these demolitions appear to be a confluence of decisions made by multiple actors – different government agencies, the Ministry for Guidance and Endowments, local government administrators and even state governors – there is a singular outcome for Christians and other minorities: the violation of the constitutional right to establish and maintain places of worship. However, the Sudanese state and its various agencies and representatives are obligated to uphold the constitutional rights of all Sudanese citizens, including the right to freedom of religion of belief.
A call for adequate protection of places of worship
The government should start by implementing a comprehensive programme to redress the damage caused by church confiscations and demolitions. The Ministry of Guidance and Endowments must review the blanket ban on issuing licences, particularly for congregations that have lost their place of worship following attacks, confiscations or demolitions. Meanwhile, local governments, should review planning laws and ensure adequate protection is given to churches and other religious buildings when creating regeneration and redevelopment projects.
Until Christians and other religious minorities can meet without fear of their places of worship may be confiscated, demolished or destroyed, Sudan will continue to have a case to answer.
By CSW’s Sudan Desk Officer
Featured image: Lutheran Church destroyed, October 2015