The Interim National Constitution provides for freedom of religious creed and the rights to worship, assemble, and maintain places of worship. Some laws and government practices are based on the government’s interpretation of a sharia system of jurisprudence, which human rights groups state does not provide protections for some religious minorities, including minority Muslim groups. The law criminalizes apostasy, blasphemy, conversion from Islam to another religion, and questioning or criticizing the Quran, the Sahaba (the Companions of the Prophet), or the wives of the Prophet. While the law does not specifically address proselytizing, the government has criminally defined and prosecuted proselytizing as a form of apostasy. According to international reports, on October 13, a group of security agents raided the private home of Tajedin Yousif in South Darfur and arrested 13 Christian men who were participating in a series of prayer meetings. Nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports stated that of the 13 persons arrested, 10 were of Darfuri origin and converts from Islam. The reports said the individuals were abused in detention, threatened with apostasy charges, and forced to denounce Christianity. Authorities released the detainees within two weeks and dropped the charges against them. Human rights groups continued to accuse the government of interfering in internal religious community disputes over the sale of church lands to investors, including on cases related to the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) and the Sudan Church of Christ (SCOC), and to highlight the inability of these Christian groups to seek legal recourse. According to church leaders, authorities continued to influence the internal affairs of churches through intimidation, harassment, and arrests of those opposed to government interference within evangelical Christian churches. In February authorities demolished a church belonging to the SCOC in the Haj Youssef neighborhood of Khartoum North and confiscated the property of the church, including Bibles and pews. As of year’s end, the government had not provided compensation for the damage nor provided an alternative space for worshipping, according to church leaders. While the law does not prohibit the practice of Shia Islam, authorities took actions against Shia Muslims. Some Shia Muslims reported authorities continued to prevent them from publishing articles about Shia beliefs. According to multiple sources, authorities again regularly charged and convicted Christian and Muslim women with “indecent dress” for wearing pants and fined and lashed them. The Ministry of Education for Khartoum State continued to mandate that Christian schools operate on Sundays in order to meet minimum required instruction hours.
Muslims and non-Muslims said a small and sometimes vocal minority of Salafist groups that advocated violence continued to be a concern. Some Christian leaders noted the lack of representation of minority religious groups within government offices and the lack of a strong Council of Churches to advocate for the legal rights of churches and their members.
In high-level discussions with the government, U.S. officials encouraged respect for religious freedom and the protection of minority religious groups. The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officials raised specific cases of demolitions of houses of worship and court cases against religious leaders with government officials, including officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They also emphasized the government’s need to take concrete steps to improve religious. Embassy officials stressed that respect for religious freedom is crucial to improved relations with the United States and a precursor to peace in the country. In meetings with the minister of foreign affairs, the Charge d’Affaires raised the denial of licenses for new churches, the demolition of houses of worship without an alternative, the harassment of Muslim religious minorities, government interference in internal church affairs, and enforcement of “indecent dress” laws. The embassy maintained close contact with religious leaders, faith-based groups, and NGOs, and embassy representatives monitored and attended many of the legal proceedings for those prosecuted in connection with their religious beliefs. In May the embassy cohosted a workshop on interreligious dialogue with the Canadian embassy in Khartoum and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In his opening remarks, the Charge d’Affaires stressed the importance of leaders from different faith backgrounds and professions ensuring that their laws and actions are in line with international guiding principles of religious freedom.
Since 1999, Sudan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated Sudan as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the restriction in the annual Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act on making certain appropriated funds available for assistance to the Government of Sudan, currently set forth in section 7042(i) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2018 (Div. K, P. L. 115-141), and any provision of law that is the same or substantially the same as this provision, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to international reports, on October 13, a group of security agents raided the private home of Tajedin Yousifa, a Christian pastor, in South Darfur and arrested 13 Christian men who were there for a series of prayer meetings. Of those arrested, reports stated 10 were of Darfuri origin and converts from Islam. NISS was reportedly monitoring the home and had two pickup trucks parked outside the home. NISS agents reportedly took the individuals to an unknown NISS facility in Nyala, where they were interrogated. NISS then transferred the detainees to a Nyala police station on October 18. Authorities initially charged the men with disturbing public peace but released 12 of the detainees on October 21 with no charges. All detainees were reportedly in poor health upon release and required medical attention for injuries sustained in police detention. Authorities kept the pastor in detention for additional questioning. Initial reports indicated that authorities also charged him with apostasy and crimes against the state, which carry a death sentence if convicted. Authorities released the pastor on October 23 and dropped all charges. Authorities stated they also considered the group to be supporters of the leader of an armed Darfuri rebel movement.
In August the Omdurman Criminal Court convicted Samson Hamad Al-Haras, a member of the government-backed Presbyterian Evangelical Community Committee (ECC), of murder in the killing of SPEC elder Yonan Abdullah during an April 2017 altercation between ECC supporters and opponents within SPEC over control of the SPEC-operated Omdurman Evangelical Church School. Al-Haras was sentenced to death. The other 60 or more SPEC leaders arrested in opposition to the ECC’s efforts to sell the school remained in various stages of prosecution.
On December 28, government security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at a group of 300-400 worshippers leaving a mosque associated with the opposition National Umma Party in Omdurman following Friday prayers. The incident occurred on the 10th day of antigovernment demonstrations and protests of rising food prices, and activists had urged protesters to gather in large numbers following Friday prayers.
According to reports, the Public Order Police frequently charged women with “indecent dress” and “indecent behavior,” and there were numerous court convictions. Religious leaders and government officials again reported the Public Order Police fined and lashed Muslim and Christian women on a daily basis in Khartoum for wearing pants and other dress the police considered indecent. In November the Public Order Police arrested a Coptic singer after she performed at a concert for which the organizer had not received the proper permit. The police searched the singer’s private phone while she was in custody and charged her with indecent behavior because of photographs they found on her phone. A judge convicted her and sentenced her to 10 lashes and a fine of 5,000 Sudanese pounds ($110). Authorities lashed her immediately following the conviction.
Minority religious groups, including Muslim minority groups and especially Shia Muslims, expressed concern they could be convicted of apostasy if they expressed beliefs or discussed religious practices that differed from those of the Sunni majority group. Some Shia reported they remained prohibited from writing articles about their beliefs and religious issues remained a redline for news media to address. Many individuals from Muslim minorities, such as Shia or Quranist groups, reported that their places of worship had remained closed since 2014. According to lawyers working on the Quranists’ issues, the Constitutional Court dismissed the court case against them due to mounting international pressure and ordered that the group not gather again. The lawyers also stated the Quranists needed to keep a low profile regarding their places of worship, as well as religious events and gatherings.
SPEC leaders continued to face lengthy and prolonged trials for charges including “criminal mischief” and “trespassing,” after they continued to use properties belonging to the SPEC.
In early July, the Pentecostal Cultural Centre, located in downtown Khartoum opposite Unity Catholic School, reopened. The government had closed the center in 2014 and temporarily turned it into a NISS office after the government claimed the church did not have legal documentation proving ownership of the building.
In September an Omdurman court ruled the SCOC national leadership committee led by Moderator Ayoub Tilliano had ownership of the SCOC headquarters in Omdurman. The leadership committee was engaged in a legal case over ownership of the property following a 2015 raid by security forces on SCOC headquarters, after which the security forces confiscated all their legal documents and brought charges against the leadership council for trespassing. The committee received the legal documents back from security services on September 24.
Government security services were reported to continue to monitor mosques closely for Friday sermon content. Multiple sources stated authorities provided talking points and required imams to use them in their sermons. If an imam’s sermon diverged from the government-provided talking points, the imam would be removed from his position. Some individuals from minority religious groups expressed concern that the Friday sermons encouraged discriminatory or hateful beliefs against the minority groups.
Prisons provided prayer spaces for Muslims, but sources stated that authorities did not allow Shia prayers. Shia prisoners were permitted to join prayer services led by Sunni imams. 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 continued to state 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. Most Christian students attended religious education classes at their churches based on the availability of volunteer teachers from their own church communities. Their families reported that the children’s schools did not usually recognize the classes, and students in those cases did not receive credit.
On February 11, authorities demolished the SPEC church in the Haj Youssef neighborhood of Khartoum North. Police arrived at the scene following Sunday worship services and ordered congregants to vacate the premises immediately. Police then confiscated the property inside the church, including the pews and Bibles, and razed the building with a bulldozer. Church leaders said they had no advance warning of the demolition. The church had already been seized by a local businessman, who claimed ownership of the church despite ownership deeds in the name of the church dating back to 1989. At year’s end, the church was engaged in an appeal of the decision and the confiscation of the church’s property, but authorities repeatedly postponed court sessions. At year’s end, church leaders had yet to receive compensation for damages or been given an alternative site for worship.
In May a Muslim human rights lawyer fled the country after he was arrested and interrogated by security services for his work advocating for minority religious groups. He had already faced repeated incidents of harassment and intimidation from NISS, including two break-ins of his home the previous year. Human rights activists expressed concern about the departure of the lawyer from their community, as he was a vocal proponent of religious freedom and worked to defend the rights of religious minorities.
According to various church representatives, the government continued to favor mosques over churches in the issuance of permits for houses of worship. 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 continued to be 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 and that mosques, churches, schools, hospitals, and residences were all affected equally by the urban planning projects. Sources estimated at least 24 churches, Christian schools, libraries, and cultural centers were “systematically closed,” demolished or confiscated by the government between 2011 and 2017. During the year, only one church demolition was reported. Government authorities also stated that mosques were affected and provided photographs of mosque demolitions; however, lack of detailed information on the alleged demolitions made it difficult to verify the information, according to observers.
The NISS noted the locations of churches and mosques it was tracking that were located on what the government referred to as “unplanned areas” in Khartoum State. Christian leaders and lawyers said that gaining outright land titles remained very difficult given that the government legally owned all land, and thus the legal status of churches remained unclear.
During the year, 22 churches filed complaints with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) following an outreach campaign to Christian religious communities in the Khartoum area by the NHRC. Most of the complaints related to land and administrative issues. At year’s end, the commission was following up with the complaints and established a working group to investigate systematic issues related to the registration of and land permits for Christian places of worship.
Following a July 2017 order from the Ministry of Education for Khartoum State mandating that schools (except for Coptic schools) operate from Sunday to Thursday, non-Coptic Christian schools either continued to operate on Sundays to adhere to the national general education guidelines, or they increased instruction hours on other school days to avoid operating on Sundays. Multiple members of the government, including the foreign affairs minister and the minister of education for Khartoum State, continued to publicly express concern that the order would damage the country’s international reputation and unnecessarily impeded individuals’ religious freedom. Government officials stated, however, that they were unaware of how to overturn the order because its origins were unclear.
The government continued to restrict some religiously based political parties, including the Republican Brothers Party, which opposes the government’s use of sharia as a source of law. The Political Parties Affairs Council, which oversees the registration of political parties, refused to register the party in 2014, and the party’s leader filed an appeal of the decision to the Constitutional Court in 2015, but the court refused the appeal. A local community center and library associated with the party in Omdurman remained closed due to government restrictions on its operation.
Government officials continued to state Islamic principles should inform official policies and often pointed to sharia as the basis for the country’s legal framework. President Bashir and other senior figures frequently emphasized the country’s Islamic foundation. In a February speech responding to public opposition to subsidy cuts and a currency devaluation, Bashir said that anyone who protested the economic situation or his administration’s policies was an enemy of Islam and working against the Islamic faith.
The government denied Christian churches or their humanitarian institutions tax-exempt status, although the government granted this status to Muslim relief agencies. Christian churches reported authorities required them to pay or negotiate taxes on items such as vehicles.
The government continued to restrict non-Muslim religious groups from operating or entering the country and continued to monitor activities and censor material published by religious institutions. The MGE and the HCGE again said they had granted a limited number of Christian missionary groups permission to engage in humanitarian activities and promote Muslim-Christian cooperation.
Many 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 the government believed would proselytize in public places. Local members of the Catholic Church said these denials 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 or South Sudanese. The government only granted residence permits with less than a year’s validity. The government required clergy to pay a fine of 70 Sudanese pounds ($1) for every day they were not in residency status.
The government reportedly 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 such individuals.
Some religious groups reported the government barred the import of unapproved religious texts and said most Christian denominations were unable to import teaching materials and religious texts as guaranteed by the constitution. According to international reports, in September authorities released two shipping containers with Arabic-language Bibles destined for the Bible Society in Khartoum after they had been detained in Port Sudan for three years.
A small number of Christian politicians, the majority of whom were members of the Coptic Church, continued to hold seats in the government.
During the year, Christian groups called for a Christian director of the MGE Office of Church Affairs. MGE officials said they agreed to appoint a Christian but had yet to do so because Christian communities could not agree on a representative. Christian groups said the government never expressed a willingness to appoint a Christian, although government officials publicly stated such willingness on multiple occasions. After the government dissolved the MGE and established the HCGE, the opportunities for non-Muslim representation were not clear.
In January the government convened a group of representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, former MGE, Inter-Religious Council, Ministry of Education, and others to discuss the state of religious coexistence. The group identified several areas of concern, including religious education inequities, and resolved to establish an intragovernmental working group on religious coexistence. In October the government formed a new higher-level interministerial group chaired by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the same structure and mandate.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Individual Muslims and Christians reported generally good relationships at the societal level and stated that instances of intolerance or discrimination by individuals or nongovernmental entities were generally isolated.
The Sudan Inter-Religious Council, a registered nonprofit, nonpolitical organization consisting of scholars, half of whom were Muslim and the other half Christian, was mandated by its constitution to advise the MGE/HCGE and to encourage interfaith dialogue.
A segment about gender equality in the country on the Deutsche Welle’s (DW) Arabic-language talk show “Shabab Talk” went viral on September 21. During the segment, a young woman, Weam Shawky, addressed Mohammed Osman Saleh, the chair of the Sudan Scholars Association, and criticized the widespread harassment and intimidation of women because of their clothing. Immediately following the episode, Saleh gave a press conference in which he said the show was put on by “enemies of our culture.” Muslim clerics responded by calling for protests and violence against DW’s production partner, television channel Sudania 24, in Khartoum. Several Muslim clerics decried the show in their Friday sermons, and one cleric accused the host, Jaafar Abdul Karim, of “spreading atheism.” Many human rights activists and other members of the local community defended the show and praised Sudania 24 for initiating an open discussion on the topic of women’s rights and the public order system.