Sudan was under the authoritarian rule of President Omar al-Bashir from 1989 until he was ousted in a military coup on 11 April 2019, following months of protests. Sudan’s defence minister stated that the army had arrested Mr Bashir and that a military council would run the country for a transition period.

In September 2019, military and protest leaders signed a new transitional government agreement and elected a civilian Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok. The three-year power-sharing agreement will be followed by elections in 2022.

Sudan gained independence from joint British/Egyptian rule in 1956 and civil war broke out as the mainly Christian, Animist and African south struggled against economic, political and social domination by the Arab Muslim north. The first of two rounds of conflict ended in 1972 but fighting broke out again in 1983, as famine hit the region.

The war became even more brutal when vast oil reserves were discovered in southern Sudan, and as it became increasingly fundamentalist, anti-Christian persecution grew, especially after 1985. Islamist militias bombed churches, murdered Christians (including pastors and church leaders), destroyed their villages, hospitals, schools and missions, and abducted women and children into slavery.

War ended with the signing of the north-south Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2005, leading to South Sudan’s secession in 2011. The decades of conflict had led to the deaths of an estimated two million people and the displacement of four million people.

Conflict has continued in the western region of Darfur, where the government has been trying to crush an insurgency since 2003. The UN has accused pro-government militias of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against non-Arabs, and the International Criminal Court has indicted former President Omar al-Bashir for alleged genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur. About 300,000 people have been killed and more than two million displaced.

Conflict also continues in the oil-rich south, especially in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan (see below), where Christians are under severe attack.

Christians in Sudan

A campaign of Islamisation of Sudan intensified after South Sudan seceded. The vast majority of Sudan’s population is Sunni Muslim, and Sharia law is the foundation of the legal system. Converts from Islam are considered apostate and are legally punishable by death. They also face severe pressure from extended family, community and religious leaders.

Persecution of Christians includes arrest, interrogation and detention without charge, demolition or confiscation of some churches, closure of Christian institutions and deportation of foreign Christian workers. Charges of “undermining national security” have been used to justify the detention of several Christians.

After secession, hundreds of thousands of Christians of South Sudanese origin were stranded in Sudan without the resources to move to South Sudan. The authorities intimidated and harassed any who did not leave or cooperate with them in their effort to find other Christians. In April 2013, the government announced that no new licences would be granted for church buildings, citing a decrease in the South Sudanese population.

South Kordofan

Persecution of Christians is especially severe in the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan state, on the border with South Sudan. The region has a significant black, ethnic Nuba Christian population, which government forces targeted for many years in a brutal campaign of aerial bombardment aimed at quashing rebels (the Sudan People’s Liberation Army) and at ridding the region of non-Arabs and Christianity and making it solely Arabic and Islamic. The bombardment destroyed homes, churches, schools and hospitals, and starvation tactics destroyed crops and livestock. Thousands of Nuba fled to refugee camps in South Sudan. Human Rights Watch described the operation as ethnic cleansing.

While a ceasefire has been in effect since 2016, the Nuba people continue to suffer food shortages and occasional violence.

In May 2016, Open Doors published a report titled “Sudan: Ethnic Cleansing and the Persecution of Christians”, which stated that attacks against Christians in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states were systematic and widespread and qualified as ethnic cleansing. It said successive Islamist regimes had attempted to turn Sudan into a Sharia state with strict punishments for apostasy, blasphemy and defamation of Islam, and that many Christians, especially those with roots in South Sudan, had been forced to leave the country.

Meriam Ibrahim

In 2014, there was international outcry over the case of Meriam Ibrahim, a Christian doctor who was sentenced to death for apostasy. Since her father was Muslim, the Sudanese legal system considered her Muslim, and her marriage to a Christian from South Sudan was declared invalid. She was accused of “infidelity” for having had children with a Christian and was sentenced to one hundred lashes for adultery and was told that the children would become wards of the state and be raised as Muslims.

At eight months pregnant, Meriam was imprisoned with her 20-month-old son. A judge told her she would be freed if she renounced Christianity, but she refused to recant. In prison, her legs in shackles, she gave birth to a daughter.

Following international protests, Meriam was released from prison but when she went to Khartoum airport to leave Sudan more than forty National Intelligence and Security Services agents arrested her and she was charged with forging travel documents. Following increased international pressure, the government eventually dropped charges and Meriam and her family were allowed to leave the country.

(Barnabas/BBC/Christian Solidarity Worldwide/Guardian/Morning Star News/Release International/Voice of the Martyrs Canada/World Watch List)