KHARTOUM: Church properties have been bulldozed and seized in a climate of growing harassment of minority Christians in Islamist-run Sudan since the South’s 2011 independence, its council of churches said.
Kori Elramla Kori Kuku, general secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches, told AFP harassment has been on the rise ever since the separation three years ago of South Sudan, whose population follow mainly Christian and traditional beliefs.
A death sentence issued in May to a pregnant Sudanese Christian woman convicted of apostasy from Islam drew worldwide attention to the issue of religious freedom.
Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag took refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum Thursday after a higher court annulled her conviction, and the Italian government flew her and her family out to Rome, where she met with Pope Francis.
The meeting was “a sign of closeness and solidarity for all those who suffer for their faith, in particular Christians who suffer persecution,” the Vatican said.
Away from the limelight, Kuku said churches have faced numerous challenges and threats from Sudanese authorities.
“The situation is very bad,” he said. “After separation, everything changed completely. The freedom we used to have now is denied.”
He said the Council is concerned after a Sudanese newspaper reported that the Religious Affairs Ministry will no longer allow the building of new churches, since most Christians were Southerners who had left.
But a senior ruling party official, Rabbie Abdelatti Ebaid, said he was unaware of any such decision.
In practice, churches have already faced obstacles, according to Kuku.
The Sudan Church of Christ in North Khartoum was “bulldozed” because, according to officials, it lacked legal title to the land, he said.
Authorities have also confiscated a building housing the Sudan Interior Church in the central Khartoum Two district, Kuku said at his office.
And state security agents last week halted a workshop organized by ALARM, the African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries, Kuku said.
The peace-building group had invited Muslims and Christians from Sudan’s war zones of Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan.
Kuku said security agents intervened shortly after the workshop opened with readings from both the Koran and the Bible.
“We are not forcing anybody,” he said. “What is wrong if we read the Bible?”
Deportations, confiscation and destruction of church property, and other anti-Christian actions have increased since December 2012, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a Britain-based group, said in May.
A dozen denominations including Catholic and Coptic Orthodox officially belong to his Council, but Kuku says he also has a responsibility toward more than 12 other denominations.
“We feel our rights are not respected even though the constitution is good,” guaranteeing religious freedom, said Kuku, interviewed at the Council’s headquarters in a low-rise building which carries no sign, only a small cross in the metal grillwork above an open door.
He agreed, however, that worship itself takes place unhindered, although security agents monitor the services.
There is no clear data on how many Christians remain in Sudan, but Ebaid said “they have economic weight, they have intellectual weight and even their opinion is respected.”
They were not “in the margin” of society.
At an iftar organized by the Coptic Church, President Omar al-Bashir said Sudan was a “model in boosting values of religious tolerance,” according to official media.
However, Western governments and rights activists expressed alarm over the case of Ishag, who had been sentenced to hang for apostasy under Shariah law which outlaws conversions on pain of death.
“I know we are a minority. But we have a right as Sudanese citizens to worship, to build the churches, to exercise our religious freedom,” Kuku said.
“We are not hindering them to worship God. Why are they hindering us, the minority?”