Sudan's persecuted Christians eye long-sought freedom
Sudan's Christians suffered decades of persecution under the regime of Islamist general Omar al-Bashir. Now they hope his downfall will give the religious freedom they have long prayed for.
Deep within the maze of dusty alleys that honeycomb Omdurman, Khartoum's sprawling twin city, Yousef Zamgila's church is not visible from the street. It is hidden in the courtyard of a friend's home and consists of a few iron benches, a pulpit and crosses hastily painted on pillars holding a corrugated roof.
"The previous centre got destroyed because we didn't have the right papers. They always refused... So we use the land of our neighbours," says the Lutheran reverend.
Denying the Christian minority permits to build churches has been the main tool of oppression over the years. Another was the all-Islamic culture imposed by the state in schools and in the workplace, despite the former constitution's provisions on religious freedom.
"Our youths and children cannot learn about Christianity because their entire environment is made only for Muslims," says Jacob Paulus, a 28-year-old teacher in Omdurman.
Sudan: From protests to power struggle
Following the violent crackdown on the protest camp in Khartoum, the tension between the civilians and military became even more strained. Yet the stalemate appears over – for now. Here's a chronology of events. By Kersten Knipp
Breaking fast during the protests: for weeks – even during Ramadan – thousands of protesters camped outside Sudan's defence ministry, demanding a transitional council in which civilians could decide the future of the country. In early June the military moved in and forcefully removed the protesters. Dozens of people died and those who survived reported rapes, sexual abuse and the use of force
For the love of the country: a protester holds up the national flag outside the army headquarters. His demand: that Sudan's Transitional Military Council hand over power to the civilians. This, the protesters believe, will be an important step towards democracy
Warning signs: in early June, just days ahead of the crackdown on the sit-in, the military increased its presence on the streets. Many protesters predicted that the army would not want to hand over power. This was what they hoped for after the ousting of long-time president Omar al-Bashir
The end of an era: from 1989 until his April 2019, Omar al-Bashir ruled Sudan. He suppressed critics. In 1999 he even dismantled parliament in order to maintain his grip on power. His name will, however, be remembered for his handling of the Darfur crisis. His troops' harsh response led to thousands of deaths and for that, he is wanted for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court
A dictator in court: many Sudanese had been waiting for this day for a long time – the day when Omar al-Bashir would have to face a court. On 16 June, he appeared before prosecutors, accused of corruption and the illegal possession of foreign currency. After being ousted, security forces found over one million U.S. dollars stashed away in his villa
The voice of the women: many women actively participated in the protests and they gave the protests a different face. Their presence underlined the protesters demand for democracy and equal rights. During the brutal crackdown by security forces, many women reported sexual abuse and rape as a means to silence them
The Nubian queen – an icon of the revolution: architecture student Alaa Salah became the face of the revolution. A photographer shot this picture as she stood on top of a car and addressed protesters. Photos and videos of her protest chants trended on social media. Online she is known as "Kandaka" or the Nubian queen
International solidarity: thanks to social media, the protests rapidly caught international attention and support from human rights groups and Sudanese living abroad. In a statement, the EU's foreign ministers urged for an immediate end to all forms of violence against Sudanese civilians
Some still support the military: but not all Sudanese civilians are against the army. Some people, in fact, want a tough military rule to give the country security and strength. The army supporters have placed their faith in General Abdel Fattah Burhan, the head of the Transitional Military Council
The strongman in the background: the real power, however, lies not with General Abdel Fattah Burhan, but his deputy, General Mohammed Hamdan Daglu, also known as "Hemeti". He heads the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) who cracked down brutally on the protesters. During the war in Darfur, he commanded the feared Janjaweed militias. The protesters fear that he could, in the end, take power
No end in sight to the protests: the protests continued unabated throughout June. Military leaders on Monday, 23 June, turned down a proposal for a power-sharing deal. The protest leaders, represented by the coalition Forces for Declaration of Freedom and Change, which includes the Sudanese Professional's Association, had accepted the deal which was negotiated with the help of Ethiopia
Power-sharing deal negotiated: on 5 July members of the military and protest movement representatives announced they had reached a deal to share power. For the next three years, a transitional council consisting of six civilians and five military figures will lead the country. Democratic elections will then be held. People in Khartoum celebrated the news, though the practicalities of implementation cause conflict to re-ignite
Help from the Gulf: Politicians of other Arab nations continue to watch the developments in Sudan with a certain degree of concern. Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, it is believed, fears that successful grassroots protests could set an example for citizens in the Arab Peninsula. Both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia appear to be supporting the military regime
The neighbour in the North: Cairo seems similarly concerned about the events in Khartoum. Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (pictured l. with Omar al-Bashir in 2018) fears that the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt has been trying to silence, could fall on fertile ground in Sudan. If the Muslim Brotherhood gains support in Sudan, al-Sisi believes that its success might strengthen the group again in Egypt
Government figures say Christians represent only three percent of Sudan's 40-million inhabitants, although Christian leaders say the real figure is much higher. Copts, Catholics, Anglicans and a number of other confessions are present in the country, yet Bashir's Islamist regime drove many of them underground.
Some of the foreign charities assisting Sudan's Christians were driven out, a movement that intensified after the country's Christian-majority south seceded in 2011.
"The authorities felt that the churches and Christian charities supported the south's independence," says Ezekiel Kondo, the Anglican Bishop of Khartoum.
Sitting in his office across from his large church in central Khartoum, the prelate says "the state has consistently followed a strategy to weaken the Church".
In its worldwide report on religious freedom, the Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) pontifical foundation ranked Sudan in the most critical category of countries.
A new civilian-majority administration was sworn in last week, under a deal struck between the opposition and the generals who took charge after Bashir's ousting. The constitution adopted for the three-year transition notably omits Islam as one of the characteristics defining the state. That and the wind of democratic change in Sudan have given Christians and other minorities hope that religious plurality would be better protected in the coming phase.
"We hope there will be change. Christians were also in the protests, they had good reason... I think the darkest days are over," says Reverend Yusef.
Sitting next to him in the makeshift church, Reverend Mata Boutros Komi was equally upbeat. "At least now, our rulers are acknowledging Christians as part of this country. Christians have prayed for this change for decades, we are happy because this change has come," he says.
An encouraging sign was the inclusion of a Christian woman on the 11-member joint civilian-military Sovereign Council sworn in on 21 August.
A protest was held in Khartoum last week by Christians demanding equal rights, something hard to imagine in Bashir's days, when arrests and fines were common.
"We were concerned when the Transitional Military Council announced in May 2019 that sharia law would continue, as a hardline interpretation of sharia has often been used as a hammer to hit Christians with," says John Newton from the UK branch of ACN.
"We are cautiously optimistic that the new ruling council might uphold religious freedom for minority groups – as indeed 2005's interim constitution did – but ultimately we will have to wait and see how events unfold."
While he hopes the new administration will ease the pressure on Christians, Bishop Ezekiel Kondo argues that the priority should be to bring peace to Sudan.
"A document alone does not alleviate people's suffering. For this transition to work, peace has to happen. Then all the other important things will come more easily," he says.
The country is torn by rebellions and conflicts in several regions populated by non-Arab or non-Muslim minorities.
"If the transition's principles are really implemented, then yes, we will have change," the bishop says. "But I am still quite pessimistic because the Islamist mentality is still here." (AFP)