A welcome development – the National Commission on Freedom of Religion or Belief in Sudan

On 21 May, Sudan’s transitional government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (Agar) announced the creation of an independent National Commission on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB).[1] This welcome development has the potential to be of great benefit to the Sudanese people, and particularly to groups that have been marginalised historically. However, implementation will be the key factor determining whether the commission realises its full potential.  

The transitional government, specifically the Prime Minister and Minister of Religious Affairs, have made positive statements and pledges regarding the advancement of FoRB for all. However, there are limitations to the current government’s capacity to respond effectively to the many obstacles to the full enjoyment of FoRB by every religious community.

Over the last 30 years, policies, laws and practices have systematically undermined the rights of marginalised communities in Sudan, particularly Christians, as well as Muslims who did not conform to what the former regime deemed to be permissible religious practice. The transitional government has the herculean task of investigating, reviewing and taking steps to compensate for past violations, and ensuring an end to these abuses.

Violations have included repressive legislation, repressive policies, legislation that conflicts with the constitution, state interference in the administrative affairs of churches and seizure of assets, and violations experienced by students and teachers in educational settings. Corrupt practices that led to the sale of land and property belonging to religious institutions to private businesses were also part of the violations. Simultaneously, there is an emerging trend of abuses being committed by non-state actors. These violations are more challenging for the government to address, and particularly for the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which has a heavy and administrative workload. A nuanced approach must be adopted in order to address the social hostilities or tensions that exists in parts of Sudanese society, many of which were approved and even fomented by the previous regime. The commission will arguably be better placed to deal with these abuses, enabling greater protection for Sudan’s religious communities.

A need to look beyond Khartoum

FoRB violations in Khartoum have been documented comprehensively. However, similar violations have also occurred in other states. The number and severity of these violations has been under-reported, particularly those occurring in marginalised states that were at war with the al Bashir regime, and where FoRB violations were subsumed by a multitude of gross human rights violations.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs has focused primarily on the most egregious violations.  Historically, FoRB violations were committed mainly by state actors, and efforts are being made to ensure that policies and legislation no longer facilitate the violation of this fundamental right. As a start, the Ministry has surveyed religious institutions and communities in an attempt to understand the challenges they are experiencing. Unfortunately, to date there have been no concrete steps taken to return land, to expedite court cases over land issues, or to suspend criminal cases against church leaders.

However, the tendency to overlook violations committed in Sudan’s peripheral states persists. In Blue Nile state, for example, on 9 March extremists razed the Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church (SEPC) in Bout Town, El Tadamon locality, to the ground. The attack occurred in the same town where buildings belonging to the Sudan Interior Church, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church were attacked on 28 December 2019, and again on 16 January 2020. Despite assurances from the Federal and State governments that the churches attacked in December 2019 and January 2020 would be rebuilt and perpetrators would be brought to justice, no action has been taken yet. Moreover, there has been no official comment on the attack on the SEPC building in Bout Town.

This contrasts with the government’s response to news that the Sudanese Church of Christ in Jabarona on the outskirts of Khartoum had been attacked on 18 December, 14 January, 21 January and 29 January. During each incident, assailants attempted to burn down parts of the church building. In addition to the attacks, church leaders received serious threats from extremists living in the area, who warned that they would not allow churches to be built there even if official permission was granted.

On 18 March CSW called on the Sudanese government to investigate both the attacks on the SCOC Jabarona and on the churches in Blue Nile State. On 20 March the Minister for Religious Affairs and Endowments, Nasr al-Din Mufreh, pledged to investigate. On 29 March Mr Mufreh signed a ministerial order appointing commissioners tasked with three primary duties: to draw up a list of properties owned by the church in the metropolis of Khartoum; to review all investment properties on land allocated to the church in Khartoum, Khartoum Bahri and Omdurman; and to investigate the attacks on the SCOC Jabarona.

Despite calls urging the Ministry to either extend the mandate of the commission or to set up a separate commission to investigate violations in Blue Nile State, no action has been taken to date. The creation of a national independent commission will mean ad-hoc mechanisms will no longer need to be created to investigate these attacks, as the commission should have the capacity to probe abuses across the country and make recommendations.

A call for co-ordination

Attacks by non-state actors cannot be dealt with by the Ministry of Religious Affairs alone. Far greater coordination between the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Religious Affairs is necessary to tackle this threat effectively. For lasting change, policies should include programmes that will address longstanding social hostility, build social cohesion and counter extremism.

If it is appropriately empowered, the commission could increase the government’s capacity to respond effectively to FoRB violations, and this will demonstrate to the international community the new administration’s commitment to moving beyond legislative reform and addressing violations in a timely manner, regardless of where they occur. 

The creation of the independent commission on FoRB will be particularly significant for communities in the two areas of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, who have endured decades of multiple human rights violations as a result of a conflict in which religion was the primary rationale.  A new era is being ushered in that must be characterised by equal citizenship for all citizens, regardless of their religion, gender, ethnicity, or  state of origin, and the realisation of FoRB for all  religious communities must be the litmus test for true change.

Sudan has the opportunity to chart a new course during the transition period and post-conflict contexts. Religious freedom is and continues to be a longstanding point of contention, and as such, warrants discussion during the peace talks. The commission must adopt a model that works in the local context, but is mindful also of Sudan’s historical, cultural and religious framework. It should also assist in ensuring historical grievances are addressed, and that the particular needs and concerns of religious minorities are taken into consideration.

The commission is a tangible illustration of Sudan’s commitment to the protection and promotion of FoRB and the rights of some of the most vulnerable and marginalised communities in the country. As such, its work will be followed with close attention as Sudan seeks to build an inclusive and tolerant nation, leaving the abuses of the al Bashir era in the past.

By CSW’s Sudan Advocacy Officer

Featured image via Transitional Sovereignty Council of Sudan/Facebook

[1] The SPLM-N is an armed group based in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states which fought against the government of former president Omar al Bashir, and called for the right to self-determination for the two states. The group split into two factions in 2017 over the issue of self-determination for the people of the Nuba Mountains. The SPLM-N led by Abdel-Aziz al Hilu supported self-determination while the SPLM-N Agar, led by Malik Agar, argued that it would lead to a further fragmentation of Sudan. With the advent of the transitional government following al Bashir’s ousting, there have been peace talks with armed groups aimed at resolving the country’s internal conflicts.