What Difference Does a Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief Make?

As Ján Figel starts his second year as the EU Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) outside the European Union, the last 12 months of his time in this new mandate show the respect for this role that has developed amongst sceptics and the potential for his role going forward.

In under 12 months Mr Figel has raised the profile of FoRB as a human rights priority for the EU, highlighting the important role religion and belief, including the right not to believe, plays in the daily experience of millions across the globe.

Early on in his first term the Special Envoy said “FoRB is a litmus test for general human rights… Those who don’t understand, religion and the abuse of religion can’t comprehend what is going on in the world today.” At the end of his first year, there has been a visible widening of EU engagement on this sensitive human right, as part of its dialogue and development policies.

“FoRB is a litmus test for general human rights… Those who don’t understand, religion and the abuse of religion can’t comprehend what is going on in the world today.” – Ján Figel, EU Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief

Sudan is one of several countries with poor human rights records which Mr Figel has visited in his first year. Such visits open up opportunities for a senior EU diplomat to engage with religious leaders and religious communities to address societal hostilities, in addition to working with government officials.

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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.
Sudan protest
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.

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Church Demolitions Highlight Increase in FoRB Violations in Sudan

Sudan church demolished sized

Sudan: Lutheran Church destroyed, October 2015

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.

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