There were reports of authorities detaining Muslims, including an imam, and arresting, intimidating and detaining Christian clergy and church members on religious grounds, denying permits for the construction of churches, closing or demolishing existing churches and church schools, censoring religious materials and leaders, and restricting non-Muslim religious groups and missionaries from operating in or entering the country
According to human rights activists, Public Order police and courts charged women with and convicted them of “indecent dress.” Credible sources reported that women were fined and lashed accordingly on a daily basis in Khartoum for wearing pants and other dress considered indecent by of Public Order police. On June 19, 19 women were reportedly convicted in Khartoum East Court and fined 300 Sudanese pounds (SDG) ($42) each for “indecent dress,” although it is unclear what they were wearing when arrested. In November three men and three women were playing board games in a public place when they were arrested for “indecent dress” and released after they signed a pledge they would not dress indecently again.
International and domestic human rights observers continued to express concern that 2015 legal amendments widening the definition of apostasy targeted and discriminated against smaller Muslim groups, especially Shia, whose approaches to Islam differ from the Sunni majority. For Muslim minorities, such as Shia or Quranist groups who are not part of the mainstream of Islam adopted by the state, many followers reported needing to keep a low profile regarding their places of worship, events, and gatherings.
In July the NISS arrested Imam Yousif Abdullah Abaker following an Eid al-Fitr sermon in Al Geneina in West Darfur State. In the sermon he criticized the performance of the central and state governments and held them accountable for the loss of lives in Darfur and throughout the country. Dr. Abdullah Khalil, the then-Wali (Governor) of West Darfur State, issued an administrative order to ban the imam from the state for nine months. As of the end of the year, Abaker was released; however, the governor of West Darfur State issued an exile order prohibiting Abaker’s return. Abaker reportedly planned to file a constitutional case against the governor.
In August authorities charged Czech religious worker Peter Jasek, Sudanese Church of Christ pastors Kowa Shamal and Hassan Abdelrahim, and Darfuri student Abdelmoneim Abdumaula with eight crimes, including espionage and “warring against the state.” The men were charged for reportedly donating money they said was to fund medical treatments for Ali Omer, who was injured during antigovernment demonstrations in 2013, and for interviewing and taking pictures of Christians who said they were persecuted in the Nuba Mountains and Darfur. Authorities said the donated money was for funding rebel movements and that the defendants interviewed and took pictures without prior permission from the government. Authorities also said Jasek illegally entered Sudan via South Sudan to do this. Two of the eight charges carry the death penalty. According to Al-Yom al-Tali, an independent Arabic newspaper, police arrested Jasek at Khartoum Airport while trying to leave the country with photos and documentation of abuses against Sudanese Muslims who converted to Christianity.
At trial, prosecutors reportedly said that Jasek had been the leader of this effort. They submitted a laptop reportedly confiscated from Jasek, which they said had voice recordings of interviews between Jasek and people who said they were victims of persecution. According to the prosecutor, Abdelrahim and Jasek met at a November 2015 religious conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where Jasek arranged to enter the country illegally. According to Christian NGOs, Abdelrahim presented Omer’s case to Jasek at the conference and Jasek reportedly subsequently donated to Omer. Jasek and other defendants were arrested in December 2015, were transferred multiple times to various NISS detention facilities with no reasons given, and were being held in Al Huda Prison with their trial ongoing as of the end of the year. According to religious organizations, Shamal had been conditionally released in 2015 and told to report daily to the NISS, but was re-arrested in May. Shamal was again released in late December after charges against him were dropped due to insufficient evidence. SPECS activist Talahon Nigosi Kassa Ratta, also arrested in connection with the Addis Ababa conference, was released in May and never charged.
In September defense lawyers for two South Sudanese pastors, Reverend Yat Michael Ruot Puk and Reverend Peter Yen Reith, submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court to challenge the Court of Appeals’ 2015 decision to retry the pastors for charges including treason, espionage, and undermining the constitution. In 2015, authorities had arrested and tried the men, convicted them of lesser crimes, and subsequently released them. Upon release, the men fled the country and did not return.
In September the legal defense team that defended Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag in an apostasy case brought against her in 2014 submitted in absentia an appeal to the Constitutional Court to challenge the constitutionality of the charge of apostasy, which the lawyers said was primarily a religious – and not legal – concept. In 2014, charges against Ishag were dropped based on her state of mental well-being, and not based on the unconstitutionality of apostasy; she subsequently left the country.
On April 3, police arrested a woman and her family for apostasy after a Quranic school reported her family to the police. The substance of the school’s allegations was unknown. The case did not reach the courts, but had not yet been dismissed at year’s end. On April 5, the woman was released on bail and charges against her husband and three children (ages four, five, and six) dropped, although charges remained against the woman.
In February a judge ordered Isheikh Mohamed Ali Kadod to be assessed for mental illness following his conversion from Islam to Christianity. Authorities formally filed apostasy charges against Kadod in November 2015 after his father expressed concerns about his conversion, but it was uncertain who lodged the complaint. In accordance with court orders, the authorities went to Kadod’s home and questioned his father about his mental health. The judge dismissed the case after Kadod’s father asserted he was suffering from mental health issues.
Court proceedings against 25 people charged with apostasy in 2015 for questioning the authority of the hadiths were postponed in December 2015 until February, when the courts released the defendants, with the charges against them remaining pending. As of the end of the year, the defendants remained free on bail.
On March 13-14, NISS authorities arrested Pastors Yamani Abraham and Philemon Hassan Harrata of the Bahri Evangelical Church. They released Abraham on March 14 and Harrata on March 15.
On March 21, NISS officers reportedly detained Reverend Ayoub Tilyat Koko, the head of the Sudan Church of Christ in Omdurman. According to news reports, NISS did not provide a reason for the arrest and refused to say where they were taking him. He was later released, but was required to report to NISS offices on request.
Security authorities imposed sanctions on imams, ranging from stern official warnings to arrest and detention, for those accused of making anti-government statements, inciting hatred, advocating violence, or espousing “takfirist ideology,” which considers other Muslims who do not follow a prescribed form of Islam as apostates.
In August the minister of guidance and endowments announced in a press conference the ministry would begin to prevent the delivery of sermons and homilies in markets and public places. Monitoring of markets and public places by police continued through year’s end, although no arrests were reported. Human rights observers decried the decision as a further restriction on free speech. Some Sufi leaders, however, welcomed the new policy as a way to curb regular inflammatory speeches by Wahhabi imams in public places, which they said often incited violence. The Al-Sudani newspaper reported that the minister said “destructive ideologies ha[d] entered the country through religious forums and posed a serious security threat,” and that the country has many mosques, making it unnecessary to preach in public places. To support his point, the minister said 137 Sudanese individuals had joined extremist organizations such as Boko Haram and ISIS and that there had been 181 criminal cases of clashes due to inflammatory language between Wahhabi and Sufi groups.
There were reports government security services closely monitored mosques.
Prisons provided prayer spaces for Muslims. Some prisons, such as the Women’s Prison in Omdurman, had dedicated areas for Christian observance. Christian clergy held services in prisons, but access was irregular.
The government often stated it did not have non-Muslim teachers available to teach Christian courses in public schools. Some public schools excused non-Muslims from Islamic education classes. Some private schools, including Christian schools, received government-provided Muslim teachers to teach Islamic subjects, but non-Muslim students were not required to attend those classes.
According to various church representatives, the government skewed its decisions on permit issuance towards mosques. Some churches reported they were less willing to apply for land permits or to construct churches given the government’s previous repeated denials. The government attributed its denial of permits to the churches not meeting government population density parameters and zoning plans. Local parishioners reported that, compared to Islamic institutions, Christian places of worship were disproportionately affected by zoning changes, closures, and demolitions. The government said places of worship that were demolished or closed lacked proper land permits or institutional registration. The government stated mosques, churches, schools, hospitals, and residences were all affected equally by the urban planning projects.
The authorities reportedly demolished two churches (one Catholic and one Presbyterian) in Soba County of Khartoum State in December, stating the churches were on publicly-owned land.
In December the government issued a written notice to the Soba County Sudan Church of Christ stating it had no legal right to the land on which the church was built in 1986. The Sudanese Council of Churches (SCC) and lawyers appealed on behalf of the churches. At year’s end, Soba County Sudan Church of Christ had not been demolished.
In July authorities in East Nile State ordered officials overseeing land matters to issue demolition notices to 25 churches in the state. At year’s end, none of the churches had yet been demolished.
In July authorities gave three churches in Haj Yousif in Khartoum State notice of imminent demolition, saying the churches had improper land registration documents. Residents of the area reported that multiple mosques and a government-run school within the same vicinity as the churches were not given similar notices of imminent demolition. Pro bono legal representatives of the churches and the SCC appealed to the MGE on behalf of the churches, which all had informal documents showing the government allocated land to them for rent in the 1990s. As of the end of the year, the churches had not been demolished and the church’s legal representative brought a civil case against the government, which has not yet been heard by the administrative court.
Neither the Evangelical Lutheran Church nor the Sudanese Church of Christ in Omdurman, which were demolished in October 2015, received compensation as of the end of the year. According to authorities, the government would provide financial compensation and new land in another area of Khartoum to the Evangelical Lutheran Church and other institutions affected by rezoning.
Evangelical Protestant groups cited as longstanding problems the continued sale of churches’ land to investors and what they said was an ongoing lack of protection by the government for clergy and Christian parishioners arrested and detained.
As of the end of the year, the government had not implemented a 2015 court decision stipulating that only a SPECS-appointed entity may govern the land affairs of the SPECS Bahri Evangelical Church in Khartoum, and not the government-appointed Evangelical Community Council, which continued to sell the church’s land to private investors throughout the year.
In a related event on July 7, police arrested 17 individuals for protesting the Evangelical Community Council’s sale of the SPECS-owned Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Training School, part of the same land dispute in which a court ruled in favor of SPECS in 2015. Police subsequently released three of them, reportedly upon recognizing them as members of the council. The general prosecutor initially charged the other 14 with disturbing the peace and ordered their release on bail. Local police challenged instructions to release the group but released them three days later. On July 10, a judge found 13 of them guilty of disturbing the peace and fined them 300 SDG ($42) each. In addition to disturbing the peace, the fourteenth defendant was found guilty of obstructing the police and fined an additional 500 SDG ($70). Two of the convicted were members of the clergy, one was the former headmistress of the school whom the government had forcibly removed, and the remaining were senior members of SPECS. Parishioners said the arrests were a continuation of government interference in church affairs and reported that the Evangelical Community Council held elections in April and pledged to continue selling off parts of the church’s property. As of the end of the year, court orders cancelling investors’ claim to church property sold by the council were still pending, portions of the church remained closed, and the church had not received any compensation for demolitions in 2015.
According to media, NISS authorities raided the SPECS-owned Evangelical Basic School in Madani, Al Jazirah State on three separate occasions: September 5, October 4, and October 24. On September 5, police reportedly presented documents ordering the school be handed over to the MGE and temporarily arrested the school’s headmaster, Reverend Samuel Suleiman Angelo, and 12 teachers, accusing them of supporting a rebel group in the Nuba Mountains. Suleiman strongly denied the charge. Following the October 4 raid, authorities arrested and detained for four days Suleiman, Reverend Ismail Zakaria, and seven teachers for attempting to prevent the seizure of the school. Following the October 24 raid, school officials wrote a letter to the government requesting it reconsider its decision to close the school. After hearings on November 7 and 8, the Appeal Court for Administrative Affairs cancelled an order by the Madani commissioner calling for the closure of the school and appointment of a Muslim headmaster.
As of year’s end, the case of the government’s closure of the Khartoum Cultural Center of the Pentecostal Church in 2014 remained pending before the Constitutional Court. The government maintained control of the property and church leaders were only permitted to use the center for administrative purposes.
The Church of Jesus Christ in Aliza, Khartoum North, continued to seek restitution for the government’s demolition of its church in 2014 due to what the MGE said was lack of proper land permits and registration. According to the SCC, the church had not received compensation and authorities prevented them from constructing a new church.
The government restricted some religiously based political parties, including the Republican Brothers Party.
Government officials continued to state Islamic principles should inform official policies and often pointed to sharia as the basis for Sudan’s legal framework. President Bashir and other senior figures frequently emphasized the Islamic majority of the country.
The government occasionally referred to rebel groups as “secular” or “anti-Islamic.”
In September the government engaged civil society and political parties in a Community Dialogue, a forum for participation from civil society and political parties running parallel to the National Dialogue to consider future political reforms, including whether changes to the INC should be secular or based on sharia. Authorities recurrently extended the National Dialogue from January to September, to allow for more participation from opposition groups. Some participating groups argued for strengthening the role of Islam in government and politics, while other groups called for greater secularism. Many evangelical Christian groups and other civil society groups reported not being included in either dialogue.
The MGE said decisions regarding the approval and oversight of the administration of religious institutions should be considered a federal (not state) competency, in order to better control the activities of violent extremist groups. Some Salafist groups reported plans to file a case against the MGE regarding the issue.
The government restricted non-Muslim religious groups from operating or entering the country and continued to monitor activities and censor material published by religious institutions. The MGE said it granted a limited number of Christian missionary groups permission to engage in humanitarian activities and promote Muslim-Christian cooperation.
Some Christian churches reported authorities required them to pay or negotiate taxes on items such as vehicles, even though the government had previously granted them or their humanitarian institutions tax-exempt status.
Leading officials from various churches reported the government refused to grant, or delayed renewing, work and residency visas to church employees of foreign origin, including missionaries and clergy, or to individuals it thought would proselytize in public places. This reportedly had a particularly negative impact on the Catholic Church whose clergy are mostly of foreign origin, while most clergy of other Christian denominations are ethnically Sudanese. The government only granted residence permits with less than a year’s validity. According to Catholic Church officials, the government tightened restrictions on the entry of foreign clergy during the year. In rare cases when entry visas were issued, clergy often waited up to seven months before the government granted them residency permits. Until issuance, clergy were required to pay a 40 SDG ($5.60) fine for every day they were not in residency status, approximately 8,400 SDG ($1,180) over seven months.
The government closely scrutinized those suspected of proselytizing and used administrative rationales, or other aspects of the law such as immigration status, to either deport or exert financial pressure on them. As a result, most non-Muslim groups refrained from public proselytizing.
A small number of Christian politicians, the majority of whom were members of the Coptic Church, continued to hold seats in the government. Evangelical Christian groups said that the MGE-appointed director of church affairs remained a Muslim, reporting that his policies and interests were often not in alignment with those of evangelical churches.
The government allowed the SCC, an ecumenical body representing 12 member churches in Sudan and affiliated with the World Council of Churches, to engage in civic education, advocacy, peace and reconciliation, relief, and development services, either directly or through its member churches.