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Tenuous agreement in Sudan offers hope for oppressed Christians

The vast majority of Sudan’s population of 43 million people are Muslims, mainly Sunni with a range of Muslim minority groups and Surfi orders. Christians make up around 3 percent of the total population.

A man in Khartoum, Sudan, holds a national flag June 5, 2019. Protesters there demand that the country's Transitional Military Council hand over power to civilians. (CNS photo/Stringer, Reuters)

NAIROBI, Kenya (CWR) – In Sudan, the third-largest country in Africa and a nation in which Christians have frequently faced persecution from extremists, the ruling military and civilian protest leaders reached an agreement to share power on rotational bases for three years or more.

The agreement reached on Thursday, July 4th, mandates both side to form a joint civilian-military council, with five civilian representatives and five generals, with one additional seat given to a civilian agreed upon by both sides.

The deal comes after months of protests and a brutal crackdown of pro-democracy rallies by sections of the security forces. The violent repression had attracted the condemnation of church leaders and the international community, as the defiant protesters stepped up action in their push for change, including religious freedom.

On Sunday, June 30th, the protesters had poured into the streets of Khartoum and other cities while singing, beating drums, and chanting in support of civilian rule. This was in defiance of threats by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary force, which has unleashed violence, raping women, kidnapping protesters, killing some and injuring others during the six months of protests.

The RSF responded by firing live ammunition on the protesters, killing at least seven people and injuring over 200. More than 40 bodies were fished out of the Nile River, according to the Sudanese Central Committee of Doctors, which has closely followed the protests.

The vast majority of Sudan’s population of 43 million people are Muslims, mainly Sunni with a range of Muslim minority groups and Surfi orders. Christians make up around 3 percent of the total population.

Archbishop Michael Didi Adgum Mangoria of the Archdiocese of Khartoum expressed pain at the “death of so many people”, while urging the military to find a solution to the political problem without killing the people.

Archbishop Mangoria, who cares for about 1 million Catholics, said citizens had taken to the streets in recent months because they were angered by the cancellation of an agreement signed between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the opposition Alliance for Freedom and Change. Protests began in late 2018 over the rising cost of food, fuel and general inflation, and eventually called for overthrow of the regime.

An appeal was made in early June by Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Nigeria, who joined in a statement with Uganda’s Grand Mufti, Shaykh Shabaan Ramadam Mubaje, issued by the African Council of Religious Leaders (ACRL). The Cardinal had urged the authorities to respect the people’s freedom of expression and protect all persons regardless of political affiliation.

In April, the protesters forced out President Hassan Omar al-Bashir, an Islamist who had ruled Sudan for 30 years; control of the country was taken over by TMC.

Bashir’s regime, using Sharia (Islamic law) as the source of legislation, had severely curtailed many rights and freedoms; he resorted to organized violence and ethnic cleansing to force Sharia on Christians. That led to the death of two million people and the secession of South Sudan in 2011, after which many churches were burned. Then followed the demolition of more churches, which the government described as the removal of illegal structures. In 2013, the government announced it would no longer license churches, claiming that all Christians had moved to the south after the independence of South Sudan.

Around the time, a new conflict was shaping up in Darfur, a large region (about the size of France) in the west of the country. More than 500,000 people were killed in that conflict, forcing the International Criminal Court (ICC) based at The Hague to issue an indictment for Bashir in 2009. He still faces a warrant of arrest for multiple counts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

In the Nuba Mountains, some Christians have been hiding in caves and worshipping outdoors due to the actions of the government. Christians also face aerial bombardment in the region.

While many Muslims are protesting the installation of civilian rule, Christians are trying to maintain cautious optimism as the push continues for democracy in form of a civilian rule. But the quest for stability and increased freedom of worship faces stiff challenges given the history of entrenched Sharia rule and the continued use of military and force to enforce that rule.

According to Catholic Bishop Yunan Tombe Trille Kuku Andali of the El Obeid diocese, who was appointed in 2017, the problems facing Christians in Sudan are directly connected to the laws restricting the pastoral mission of the Church. He says Sudan has a tradition of being ruled by the military or Islamic Traditional Parties, and unless the laws are changed churches will continue to face serious difficulties.

The 2019 World Watch List ranks Sudan as the sixth most dangerous country in the world for Christians, and the third worst in Africa, behind Somalia (#3) and Libya (#4).  Most of the persecution is carried out by extremists who put extreme pressure on churches, families, priest and pastors.

The persecution has especially intensified in the reign of Bashir. And one Bashir’s  generals appears taking the lead in frustrating the push for a civilian rule. Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemeti) commands the deadly RSF. Members are drawn from Janjaweed, an Arab militia responsible for atrocities in the troubled western Sudan region of Darfur. In Darfur, the Janjaweed has been accused of committing human rights abuses, rape, killings and destroying homes. Hemeti is also the deputy of the TMC, and is now widely considered to be the most powerful man in Sudan.

Although the latest agreement may halt the bloodshed for now, there is evidence that the military is split between pro-Bashir hardliners and moderates who back the protesters. The hardliners, led by Hemeti, have been consolidating power, while moderates have urged them to step aside, thus raising the possibility of a violent clash in the future.

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About Fredrick Nzwili 26 Articles
Fredrick Nzwili is journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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