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Anti-Christian Backlash After South Sudan’s Secession

Churches attacked and threatened with demolition as Bashir reiterates promise to make Sudan strictly Islamic.
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Emboldened by government calls for a Sudan based on Islamic law since the secession of South Sudan, Muslim residents have attacked Christians trying to finish constructing their church building near Khartoum. Meanwhile, local authorities are threatening to demolish three other church buildings that already exist.

Muslims in the north, where an estimated 1 million Christians still live following the secession of South Sudan on July 9, fear the potential influence of the church, they said.

"They want to reduce or restrict the number of churches, so that they can put more pressure on believers," said a church leader on condition of anonymity.

The Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) congregation in Omdurman West, across the Nile River from Khartoum, has continued to meet for Sunday worship in a building without a roof in spite of opposition from area Muslims and local authorities. Claiming that Christianity was no longer an accepted religion in the country, Muslims in the Hay al Sawra, Block 29 area of Omdurman West on August 5 attacked SCOC members who were constructing the church building, area sources said.

"We do not want any presence of churches in our area," shouted members of the mob as they threw stones at the Christians, the sources said.

The SCOC has been trying to erect a church building on the site since it obtained the land in 1997, but both government officials and area Muslim residents have used delay tactics to prevent it, according to a Christian who lives in the area. The SCOC in that area of Omdurman is still trying to get permission from the Islamic government in Khartoum to construct the new church building, Christian sources in Khartoum said.

In Madinat al Fath, a different section of Omdurman, leaders from SCOC, the Episcopal Church of Sudan and the Roman Catholic Church said they were surprised to see government officials come to their church premises September 11 and accuse them of operating churches on government land without permission. Officials from the Ministry of Physical Planning and Public Utilities-Khartoum State marked the three church buildings for demolition with red crosses, saying, "We are going to demolish these churches," the church leaders said.

Jaafer al Sudani, manager of Church Affairs in the Ministry of Guidance and Religious Endowment, said officials there had no knowledge of church buildings to be demolished. The state planning officials insist that the churches are operating on government land. Church leaders say they are not.

No Christians?

In Omdurman West, the issue is less about government land than it is about Christian presence. Muslims and local "popular committees"—responsible for issuing residence certificates necessary for obtaining citizenship or an ID card, with authority to strike down proposals for erecting church buildings—assert that no church is necessary because there are no Christians there. But there are many Christians living in the area, sources said.

The government-appointed members of the popular committees tend to consist of radical Muslims who monitor Christian activities in neighborhoods so they can report them to security authorities, Christian sources said. Previously, area Christians were upset to learn that the popular committees had divided another piece of land they hoped to obtain into two lots—one designated for a mosque, and the other for a Muslim school.

"We have already raised our objection over the way we are being treated in regards to obtaining permission to build this church," said a church leader who wished to remain unnamed.

The church had filed a complaint with the Ministry of Guidance and Religious Endowments, which last month informed the SCOC that officials will investigate the matter, though they gave no time frame.

Secret surveys

Area Christians said they believe the government is quietly carrying out surveys on Christians and church programs as part of a broader effort to make Islam the official state religion; officials from the Ministry of Guidance and Religious Endowment have called church leaders, asking them to reveal information about their church members and activities of the Churches, they said.

"This is purely for intelligence purposes, so that they can put more restrictions on churches and Christians," said the Rev. Yousif El-Denger Kodi, general secretary of the Sudanese Lutheran Church. "We as church leaders are aware of their plans, but we pray for God to rescue us from their evil plans."

Members of the churches threatened with closure they are experiencing a growing tide of hostility since South Sudan's secession. "These people can do everything possible to clear this country of Christianity," said one.

Targeting Christian civilians

Sudanese Christian leaders also say efforts to rid the north of Christianity are to blame for the deaths of several civilians in South Kordofan state, about 370 miles southwest of Khartoum.

A Christian in the Leri East area of Kadugli who escaped Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) intelligence agents 18 days after his June 20 arrest from his home said he saw six other Christian detainees taken away, one by one, to be executed over the course of two weeks.

"They were insulting us, saying that this land is an Islamic land and that we were not allowed to be in this land," he said. "I saw them take my fellow Christian brothers and shoot them in the forest near the place where we were detained. … I was praying despite the fact they were threatening me that I would face the same fate of the six brothers."

While the SAF and its paramilitary allies have targeted members and supporters of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement forces, the Christian, who requested anonymity as he is still in hiding, said he was detained simply because he was a Christian. A convert from Islam 10 years ago, he said he was scheduled to be executed the day he escaped.

Earlier this month, Sudan President Omar al-Bashir again asserted that the government has decided that Sudan will have a strictly Islamic identity. Al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur, made the statement to leaders of his party in Khartoum on October 12.

Last December, one month before South Sudan's vote for independence, Al-Bashir declared that if the south seceded as expected, Sudan would amend its constitution to make sharia (Islamic law) the only source of law and Arabic the official language. Sharia is currently only "a source of legislation" according to the Interim National Constitution, but the U.S. Department of State says Islam is favored in law and policy.

This article combines several Compass Direct News reports from Sudan.


Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today has a special section on Sudan.

January/February
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