Sudan

The Coptic Church is exempt from property tax as it is registered with the government, but these are exceptions to a generally anti-Christian disposition in Sudanese law. Apostasy is illegal and punishable either by imprisonment or death. The US State Department further reports that Christian orphanages were asked to refuse male orphans and reduce the number of orphans under their care; furthermore, Christians had no legal recourse when their right by law to break for prayers was violated by authorities either at work or in school. 

Christian Demographics

Sudan is 97 percent Muslim, 2 percent traditionally religious and 1 percent Christian. The Christian community in Sudan is (since the creation of South Sudan in 2011) fairly homogenous, being almost entirely Coptic.

History of the Sudanese Christian Community

The historically established Coptic Christian church (it has existed since 543 CE) is treated significantly better than other, newer Christian denominations, especially those seeking to proselytize. Christianity was the predominant religion in Sudan until the arrival of Islam in the 600s-700s. However, the Christian kingdoms of Nubia prospered from 600 CE-1172 CE by dint of a robust treaty and trading agreement with the Egyptian monarchy. In 1260, these kingdoms were conquered and pillaged by the Mamluks, who expelled the majority of Christians in the country. Christianity experienced another particularly pronounced drop in adherence under Mahdist persecution for a decade at the end of the nineteenth century. However, from 1898 to 1960 the situation for Christians improved somewhat before the calls by radical Islamists for a more religious state became prevalent. From 1983, with the implementation of Sharia law, persecution and oppression of Christians became far more frequent, and this pattern has continued up to the present day.

Current Situation of the Christian Community

The Coptic Church is exempt from property tax as it is registered with the government, but these are exceptions to a generally anti-Christian disposition in Sudanese law. Apostasy is illegal and punishable either by imprisonment or death. The US State Department further reports that Christian orphanages were asked to refuse male orphans and reduce the number of orphans under their care; furthermore, Christians had no legal recourse when their right by law to break for prayers was violated by authorities either at work or in school. 

A Summary of Christian Responses to Persecution in Sudan

Christian leaders in Sudan have attempted to engage Sudan’s government, but, often frustrated, they have come to focus much of their energy on promoting awareness of their plight among Christians beyond Sudan, hoping that international pressure may be effective in decreasing the persecution experienced in the country. That persecution is both state-sponsored and state-sanctioned. It has at times been violent and deadly, but more often than not it takes place via laws that make it difficult for Christians to worship. The government has demolished churches in Khartoum on grounds that they do not have proper permits or because of vague references to the “public interest.” Ordinary Christians have responded by enduring discrimination and harassment and by worshipping “underground.” Some Christian leaders in Sudan have spoken out against the persecution and, as a result, been arrested.

Especially since the creation of South Sudan in 2011, Christians in Sudan have proven to be a convenient scapegoat as the government of Sudan seeks to blame others for the country’s economic woes (largely the effects of low oil prices). With the creation of South Sudan, Christians have been portrayed as people who no longer belong in Sudan and as people who occupy valuable space and consume scarce resources. There is evidence that the government has attempted to encourage religion-based nationalism in Sudan so that religious identity is equated with citizenship. According to those who espouse this religion-based nationalism, to be truly Sudanese is to be Muslim. The government has publicly denied that Christians are the victims of religious persecution. Rabie Abdelati, a senior official in the ruling National Congress Party comments, “All religions can practice their faith in total freedom. There are no restrictions at all.” Yet, the experience of Christians is different. A Christian living in the Nuba Mountains region near the border with South Sudan noted, “We are supposed to be citizens with equal rights, but in the eyes of the government we are a foreign entity which seeks to destroy Sudan.”

Christian leaders have responded in a variety of ways. Some have attempted to engage with the government behind the scenes and plead for greater freedom. For example, in 2013 a group of Christian leaders submitted a private letter to President Omar Bashir asking that items confiscated by the police from a church in Khartoum be returned and stating that Christians simply want to peacefully worship in freedom. Other Christian leaders have chosen to speak out and to criticize the government openly. For example, Presbyterian pastor Reverend Yat Michael was arrested in December 2014 after he gave a sermon in which he questioned the treatment of Christians in Sudan. Another Presbyterian leader, Reverend Peter Yen, was arrested after he sent a letter to the government inquiring into the status of Reverend Michael. They were both charged with undermining the constitutional system, waging war against the state, and espionage. Under pressure from international actors, Sudan released the two Christian leaders in August 2015. Because many Christian groups and countries applied pressure, it is difficult to determine whose pressure was most effective at winning their release. Nonetheless, it does demonstrate that the Sudanese government sometimes may be pressured successfully when it comes to the persecution of Christians.

Frustrated by efforts to get the government to allow greater religious freedom in Sudan, Christian leaders have focused on encouraging steadfastness in the face of persecution and reaching out to the international Christian community. “The government destroyed our church but we do not have to be afraid,” one Christian leader said. “God will always protect us.” The international Christian community has responded in various ways. The US-based Christian organization, Open Doors, has responded by sponsoring seminars that encourage Christians to endure persecution and remain true to their Christian faith. These seminars are called Standing Strong Through the Storm (SSTS) and are designed to equip believers with the spiritual tools to live out their faith in the face of discrimination.

 

This country profile draws on research by Dr. Robert Dowd and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.