The Impact of Sudan’s Identity War on Freedom of Religion or Belief

In June 2016, CSW joined a number of African and international civil society organisations in signing and delivering a letter marking the fifth anniversary of the conflicts in South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions, to 10 Downing Street. The letter urged the Prime Minister to use the UK’s considerable influence to ensure that international human rights and humanitarian law are respected.

Protesters walked from the Sudanese Embassy in London to Downing Street to deliver the letter. Among those taking part, it was striking to see veiled and unveiled Sudanese women from the Nuba Mountains, people from other parts of South Kordofan and Darfur, young children, and men in traditional Nuba dress united in calling for an end to all conflicts in Sudan.

This demonstration of unity in diversity was compelling, as was the cry for peace and freedom for all Sudanese citizens. The repression of religious and ethnic diversity in Sudan has been used repeatedly by President al Bashir’s government to sustain his 27-year rule, and what was clearly expressed on that overcast Saturday afternoon in London was the longing for an end to conflicts that serve to perpetuate a divisive government and for a lasting peace in which people can live side by side without fear, regardless of their cultural, linguistic, ethnic or religious differences.

The Heiban Massacre

For the past five years South Kordofan and Blue Nile States have been wracked by fighting as the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and their allied Arab-millitia have battled the forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), a group which fought alongside South Sudan prior to its independence.

In May, an SPLM-N spokesperson was the first to alert international organisations of aerial bombardment on 1 May by two SAF MiG fighters in Heiban, Nuba Mountains, which caused the deaths of six children aged between four and 12 years old, three of them from the same family.

This event, which has since been termed the “Heiban Massacre” by Sudanese activists, gave rise to a letter classifying this and other attacks in Blue Nile and South Kordofan over the last five years, as well as those which have been taking place in Darfur State for the last 13 years, as crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. It was signed by 29 heads of the major opposition parties, 30 representatives of civil society and hundreds of individuals.

Meanwhile the targeting of civilians has continued. On 26 May, the SAF bombed St. Vincent Elementary School in Kaudia, South Kordofan, injuring a Kenyan teacher. On 10 June, an anonymous activist in Ed Damazin, the capital of Blue Nile State, reported the detention of approximately 200 civil society activists.

A Policy of Arabisation

The wars raging in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur are central to the question of identity in Sudan as for decades President al Bashir’s government has been accused of implementing a policy of Arabisation and Islamisation.

“The Nuba” is an umbrella term describing a collection of linguistically diverse and multi-religious tribes indigenous to the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan.  In a policy honed during the second civil war, Khartoum has consistently made it as difficult as possible for civilians, and particularly the Nuba, to remain on their ancestral lands. A UN report implicates the SAF and government-allied militia in the aerial bombardment of civilians, summary and extra judicial executions of individuals thought to be SPLM supporters, and the targeting of those with darker skinned or of Nuban ethnicity.

The Nuba have suffered historically at the hands of predominantly Arab governments in Khartoum, and their tradition of peaceful coexistence and unity despite diversity contrasted starkly with the vision for Sudan espoused by the current regime. During the second civil war they joined South Sudan in opposing the imposition of Shari’a law across the nation. Nuban resistance went beyond the grounds of religion to their right to be recognised and respected as a people. Their identification with the South Sudanese struggle led to a brutal state sponsored jihad against the Nuba, even though many are Muslim. Moreover, during this campaign, non-Muslim civilians who sought refuge in government-run humanitarian camps were given inducements to convert to Islam.

The Impact on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Since the secession of South Sudan President al Bashir has repeatedly stated that Sudan will be 100% Islamic with a Sharia constitution.

Although a new constitution is still being drafted, the government’s announcement that no new church licences will be issued in Sudan, followed by the rapid confiscation of church properties, and demolition of churches with little notice are indications that it is already restricting the rights of Sudan’s Christians.

Furthermore, the government continues to interfere in ecclesiastical affairs. The Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church is involved in a prolonged struggle with the Ministry of Guidance, Endowments and Religion, the body in charge of religious affairs in the country, over the administration of church land. More concerning is the frequent and arbitrary detention of religious leaders, such as Reverends Hassan Abduraheem and Kuwa Shamal, who are currently held without charge whilst the prosecutor investigates whether or not to indict them for national security crimes. In addition to being senior leaders in the Christian community, the fact that they are from the Nuba Mountains has had a negative impact on their experience at the hands of the Sudanese security services.

The unrelenting fighting in Sudan’s marginalised regions has forced many from South Kordofan, Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains and Darfur to seek refuge in Khartoum and other cities. However, once there discrimination and question of identity persist.

Last year, CSW advocated for a group of women originally from the Nuba Mountains who were targeted by the public order police, charged with immoral or indecent dress, and were facing a sentence of 40 lashes. The women were targeted because of their ethnicity and religion; sharia law stipulations were applied in their case despite the existence of legal provisions that protect Christians from such measures.  Students from Darfur often experienced mistreatment at the hands of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), especially when they peacefully demand recognition of their rights to political participation.

These violations of the rights of women and religious minorities, and the shrinking of political freedoms must be seen in the context of the conflicts raging in the South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur, and the ideology of the current government.

For decades Sudanese civil society and opposition groups have, under extreme pressure, worked to see the “multi-cultural, multilingual, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious country where such diversities co-exist” described in the 2005 interim constitution become a reality.  The international community, and in particular African nations and African Union, must empower and work with Sudanese citizens for the realisation of constitutional aspirations of a  Sudan that is  “… an all embracing homeland where religions and cultures are sources of strength, harmony and inspiration.”

By CSW’s Sudan Desk Officer