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.
According to the government of Sudan, 97 percent of the population is Muslim. However, in 2021, the World Christian Database estimated the Muslim population at 91.9 percent, the Christian population at 4.4 percent, with under 2 million Christians, and the population of practitioners of traditional religions at 2.5 percent. According to the NGO Open Doors USA, some groups supporting religious freedom have claimed that the number of non-Muslims in Sudan is far higher than acknowledged, perhaps between 15 to 20 percent of the population.
History of the Sudanese Christian Community
Christianity was the predominant religion in Sudan until the arrival of Islam in the 600s-700s CE. The Coptic Christian Church existed in Sudan since 543 CE, and thus today is treated significantly better than other, newer Christian denominations, especially those seeking to proselytize. Despite the expansion of Islam into Northeast Africa, the Christian kingdoms of Nubia prospered from around 600 CE until 1172 CE by dint of a robust treaty and trading agreement with the Islamic Fatimid dynasty in Egypt. The overthrow of the Fatimid dynasty in 1171 CE resulted in the decline of the Nubian kingdoms, and in 1260, they were conquered and pillaged by the Mamluks, who expelled the majority of Christians in the region. The Christian population in Sudan experienced another sharp decline under a decade of Mahdist persecution at the end of the nineteenth century. However, from 1898 to 1960 the situation for Christians improved somewhat before calls by radical Islamists for an Islamic state became prevalent. From 1983, with the implementation of Sharia law, oppression of Christians became far more frequent. Between 1983 and 2005, over the course of a twenty-two year civil war originating in Sudan’s predominantly Christian south, up to two million people lost their lives and around 80 percent of southern Sudan’s population, or over four million people, were internally displaced.
Current Situation of the Christian Community
On 11 April 2019, Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir was deposed in a military coup. Al Bashir had maintained a regime characterized by consistent and egregious human rights violations since 1989, and his government had treated Christians as promoters of dangerous western influence.
Under the transitional government that followed al Bashir’s removal, the situation for Christians in Sudan improved significantly. However, since Sudan’s military dissolved civilian elements of the transitional government in October 2021, Christians have faced ongoing governmental and societal challenges that reflect a continuation of oppressive regime-era policies.
During Omar al Bashir’s nearly thirty-year regime, preaching by non-Muslims was illegal, though informally permitted, and apostasy was punishable by death. The Coptic Church was registered with the government and exempt from property tax, but this was a notable exception to the government’s anti-Christian stance. The government frequently shuttered or demolished churches on grounds that they did not have proper permits and failed to prevent sectarian mobs from storming church services. Christians had no legal recourse when their right by law to break for prayers was violated by authorities at work or in school, and under a July 2017 Ministry of Education order, Christian schools were required to close on Friday and Saturday but to operate on Sunday, in observance of the Muslim week. The US State Department reported that Christian orphanages were asked to refuse male orphans and to reduce the number of orphans under their care.
Following al Bashir’s removal from office, the transitional government passed a series of notable religious rights reforms. Thirteen days after al Bashir’s removal, Christian schools were allowed to revert to a Christian work week and to close on Sundays. In September 2020, the transitional government ended the nation’s use of Sharia law, removing Islam as the nation’s official religion. In July 2020, the government repealed Sudan’s apostasy law, criminalizing accusations of apostasy, and reduced the harshness of its blasphemy law.
However, on October 25, 2021, the military took full control of the government, arresting civilian leaders. General Abdel Fattah al Burhan stated that the military would hold power until democratic elections in July 2023. Anti-Christian authorities have since argued that the October military coup invalidates legislative reforms passed by the transitional government. In April 2022, an Evangelical Lutheran pastor who had been beaten by an extremist while leading a church service was convicted of disturbing the peace alongside his attacker and sentenced to one month in prison. In May 2022, a local court approved the demolition of properties owned by the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) in Omdurman, following a November 2021 ruling that the SPEC could not manage its own administration. And in July 2022, four Christian converts in Central Darfur were charged with apostasy and threatened with the death penalty by prosecutors.
A Summary of Christian Responses to Persecution in Sudan
In July 2012, a year after South Sudan gained independence from Sudan, President al Bashir expressed support for a “100 percent Islamic” constitution. Addressing non-Muslims, he stated: “nothing will preserve your rights except for Islamic sharia because it is just.” Under al Bashir’s regime, and especially after the creation of South Sudan in 2011, the government attempted to encourage religion-based nationalism in Sudan so that Islamic identity would be equated with citizenship. The government perceived Christians in Sudan as agents of Western influence and convenient scapegoats for the country’s economic woes, largely the effects of low oil prices. 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.” Al Bashir’s government denied that Christians in Sudan are victims of religious persecution. In 2013, Rabie Abdelati, a senior official in the ruling National Congress Party commented: “All religions can practice their faith in total freedom. There are no restrictions at all.”
Christian leaders in Sudan under al Bashir’s regime attempted to engage with Sudan’s government with little success, and consequently prioritized promoting steadfastness among the Christian community and awareness of the plight of Sudanese Christians among Christians beyond Sudan, hoping that international pressure would decrease the persecution experienced in the country. “The government destroyed our church but we do not have to be afraid,” one Christian leader said in 2013. “God will always protect us.
Some Christian leaders attempted to engage quietly with the government and plead for greater freedom. For example, in 2013 a group of Christian leaders submitted a private letter to President al Bashir requesting the return of items confiscated by the police from a church in Khartoum and stating the desire of Christians to peacefully worship in freedom. Other Christian leaders criticized the government openly. For example, Presbyterian pastor Reverend Yat Michael was arrested in December 2014 after he questioned the treatment of Sudanese Christians in a sermon. Another Presbyterian leader, Reverend Peter Yen, was arrested after he sent a letter to the government inquiring into the status of Reverend Michael. Both pastors were charged with undermining the constitutional system, waging war against the state, and engaging in espionage. Under pressure from international actors, Sudan released them in August 2015.
From December 2018 to April 2019, civilians, especially young people, participated in widespread protests against both the rising prices of grain and fuel and the egregious human rights violations of al Bashir’s regime, demonstrating even as security forces engaged in violent suppression, killing dozens of protestors. Through protests, civilians created a movement that succeeded at both securing al Bashir’s removal and negotiating with the military to form a transitional government in which the military shared power with civilian leaders. Although Christians are a minority in Sudan, they played a significant role in the pro-democracy movement. The NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that throughout the protests, Christians and Muslims demonstrated unity. Christians prepared food for Muslims to break the Ramadan fast, and Christians and Muslims shared hymns at a public prayer service. “A civil society movement has for the first time brought all Sudanese people together, and the church is part of it,” Bishop Yunan Tombe Trille of the Catholic Diocese of El Obeid in south-central Sudan stated shortly after al Bashir’s removal.
In the wake of the military coup on October 25, 2021, the public response of Christians was muted due to a widespread phone and internet blackout. However, Christian leaders called on the international community to pressure the military junta to return authority to civilian leaders. Christian leaders, who throughout al Bashir’s long regime emphasized fortitude in response to trial, again expressed confidence in the ability of the Christian community to withstand persecution. The day after the coup, Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala, President of the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, stated: “The message of the scriptures remains to be the strength of the people of God in the light of any situation.”
Christians continue to work for freedom to worship, despite the challenging political and security situation. Boutros Badawi, a Christian advisor to Sudan’s Minister of Religious Affairs, was investigating church closures under al Bashir’s government in July 2021 when extremists pulled him from his vehicle, beat him, and threatened him at gunpoint to cease his activism. Badawi was not silenced. One month after the attack, he criticized the transitional government’s failure to return confiscated church buildings and advocated for the release of a shipment of Bibles that were unlawfully stalled by Sudanese customs officials.
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. It was updated by Joseph London at the University of Notre Dame in August 2022.