In another sign that Islamist elements hostile to Christianity in Sudan could be reined in, the minister of religious affairs has reiterated that Christian properties confiscated under the previous regime would be returned.
Acknowledging that Christians were persecuted and endured “very bad practices” under the regime of former President Omar al-Bashir, Minister of Religious Affairs Nasr al-Din Mufreh on Sunday (Nov. 3) was quoted in International Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat as saying property stolen from Sudanese Christians would be returned through court proceedings.
Mufreh also had told media in September that confiscated church properties should be returned.
In Sunday’s in which he invited expelled Jews to return to Sudan – as he had in September, drawing criticism from Muslim hardliners – Mufreh said that Christians and people of other beliefs are free to practice their faith in Sudan.
“They [Christians] are Sudanese, and their religion is heavenly with its values and beliefs,” Mufreh told Asharq Al-Awsat, saying that Christians have such a presence in Sudan that they should not be described as a minority.
Sudanese Christians hope the comments mark a sea change from the Islamist campaign of Bashir, ousted by the army on April 11 after widespread protests began in December 2018. Following the secession of South Sudan in 2011, Bashir had vowed to adopt a stricter version of sharia (Islamic law) and recognize only Islamic culture and the Arabic language. Church leaders said Sudanese authorities have demolished or confiscated churches and limited Christian literature on the pretext that most Christians have left the country following South Sudan’s secession.
In April 2013 the then-Sudanese Minister of Guidance and Endowments announced that no new licenses would be granted for building new churches in Sudan, citing a decrease in the South Sudanese population. Sudan since 2012 has expelled foreign Christians and bulldozed church buildings. Besides raiding Christian bookstores and arresting Christians, authorities threatened to kill South Sudanese Christians who do not leave or cooperate with them in their effort to find other Christians.
After Bashir was deposed, military leaders initially formed a military council to rule the country, but further demonstrations led them to accept a transitional government of civilians and military figures, with a predominantly civilian government to be democratically elected in three years.
Christians are expected to have greater voice under the new administration. In September pastor Mobarak Hamaad, former head of the Sudanese Church Council, demanded that the transitional government return all church buildings, lands and properties wrongfully confiscated by the former regime.
Religious Affairs Minister Mufreh told Asharq Al-Awsat his ministry would fight terrorism, extremism and takfiri notions – punishments for leaving Islam. He said Islamic State (IS) had no cells established in the country while acknowledging that members had likely entered.
“The Sudanese Islamic Movement project has been defeated in political and community life thanks to the glorious revolution,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat, while acknowledging that a number of Islamist elements have begun trying to spread extremist ideas in Sudanese mosques.
“We will besiege these mosques with a serious discourse calling for moderation and the fight against extremism,” Mufreh told the Arabic-language news outlet.
Mufreh previously worked as a leader in the Al-Ansar Mosque in Rabak, south of Khartoum.
The new government that was sworn in on Sept. 8, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, an economist, is tasked with governing during a transition period of 39 months. It faces the challenges of rooting out longstanding corruption and an Islamist “deep state” rooted in Bashir’s 30 years of power.
Bashir, who came to power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989, faces charges of illegal acquisition and use of foreign funds. In Khartoum’s Kobar prison, he is charged with “inciting and participating in” the killing of protestors. In March 2009, the International Criminal Court indicted him for directing a campaign of mass killing, rape, and pillage against civilians in Darfur.
Hamad, the former chairman of the Sudan Council of Churches, has said that the government should recover all properties confiscated under the previous regime, including the Catholic Club and another building belonging to the Sudan Interior Church.
The Catholic Club, strategically located near the Khartoum International Airport, was turned into the headquarters of Bashir’s National Congress Party. The Sudan Interior Church building, used by the Khartoum International Church and other Christian organizations, was turned into offices for the notorious National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).
On July 29, Chairman of the Military Council Abdul Fattah Al-Burhan issued a decision to amend the name of NISS to General Intelligence Service. The measure also froze Article 50 of the Law of Security Service, which had given NISS broad powers of inspection and detention without cause, widely misused against Christians and political opponents.
Sudan fought a civil war with the south Sudanese from 1983 to 2005, and in June 2011, shortly before the secession of South Sudan the following month, the government began fighting a rebel group in the Nuba Mountains that has its roots in South Sudan.
Due to its treatment of Christians and other human rights violations, Sudan has been designated a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. State Department since 1999.
Sudan ranked sixth on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.