After 16 months in prison on what their church says are trumped-up charges, two Sudanese Catholic priests have refused to accept a presidential amnesty promised last week to political prisoners.

Both Fr. Hilary Boma and Fr. Lino Sebit have been under arrest since August 1998, accused of masterminding a series of explosions in Khartoum designed to overthrow Sudan's Islamist regime.

In a statement released by Missionary Services News Agency (MISNA) November 26, the two clerics declared they "do not intend to benefit" from President Omar al-Bashir's blanket offer to release political prisoners.

The president announced the general amnesty when he met on November 25 with Sadiq al-Mahdi, a former prime minister and leader of the opposition Ummah Party. It was one of several conciliatory gestures given to convince key opposition groups to sign peace accords with Khartoum's National Islamic Front (NIF) government.

Both Catholic and Protestant sources in Khartoum confirmed that "all members of Sudan's church" approved of the "courageous stand" taken by Boma and Sebit in refusing to benefit from the general amnesty ordered after the Ummah agreement.

"They will in fact only leave the prison with a total acquittal," the MISNA release stated, noting that the priests were determined to wait "until full light is shed on the terrorism charges that led to their arrest and detention."

After weeks of systematic torture and months of solitary confinement, Boma and Sebit had been put on trial with 18 other defendants in a highly publicized military tribunal during October 1998. According to reports issued by church sources, human rights groups and a United Nations inquiry, the two priests as well as other fellow defendants had been forced under torture to sign false confessions to the charges filed against them.

But court proceedings bogged down this past January when the defense appealed to the Constitutional Court that their clients, all but one of whom are civilians, could not be tried legally before a military court. The stalemate was not resolved until November 5, 1999, when the Sudanese justice minister finally ordered the case transferred to the jurisdiction of the civil criminal courts.

Boma, chancellor of the Khartoum Diocese, and Sebit, a parish priest, have been outspoken critics of Sudanese government attempts to curtail Christian institutions and ministry. A major point of contention fueling the 16-year civil war between the Arab Muslim North and African Christian-animist South has been Khartoum's forced Islamization program imposed on the predominantly non-Muslim Southern Sudanese.

According to a November 28 report from the British Broadcasting Company, the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) flatly rejected the Ummah agreement with the NIF regime, declaring it would not solve the country's problems because "it failed to address the crucial issues of the separation of religion and state."

There has been no confirmation whether any of the priests' co-defendants have agreed to accept the proposed amnesty.

Although Catholic Archbishop Gabriel Zubeir Wako of the Khartoum Diocese insists that Sudan's Christians are "neither anti-Islam nor anti-government," he accuses the Khartoum regime of making the church's institutions and personnel a deliberate target of persecution and discrimination.

In a plenary address to the Bishops of France meeting in Lourdes on November 7, Archbishop Wako declared that Sudan's Christians had been scattered "to almost every corner of the Sudan under continuous harassment by the security forces, under constant humiliation and frequently made the scapegoat in times of crisis."

"All parties to the war need to be pressured," he pled, "into considering carefully the irreparable harm this war is doing to the country and to the spirit of the people."

Related Elsewhere

The U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom examines Sudan's religious freedom from political and societal perspectives, and remarks on what the U.S. government has done in response to human rights infringements in the country.

See our print magazine's August 9, 1999 cover story on Sudan, particularly on slavery in the country.

For more coverage of this story, check out Missionary Services News Agency.

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