US tells Sudan to ‘immediately suspend’ church demolitions

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John J. Sullivan said “the treatment of members of religious minorities is often the ultimate indicator of a government’s commitment” to religious freedom (World Watch Monitor)

The US Deputy Secretary of State has called on Sudan to “immediately suspend” its demolition of churches and to hold a roundtable discussion with Christian leaders to resolve disputes.

John J. Sullivan, speaking at the Al-Neelain Mosque in Omdurman on Friday (17 November), said “the treatment of members of religious minorities is often the ultimate indicator of a government’s commitment” to religious freedom.

He added that the US State Department’s recent International Religious Freedom report “noted instances of the arrest, detention, and intimidation of religious leaders, and the denial of permits for the construction of new churches; restrictions on non-Muslim religious groups from entering the country; and the censorship of religious material”.

John J. Sullivan was speaking in Khartoum on Friday (US Embassy Khartoum / Twitter)

His comments come a month after the US lifted economic sanctions on Sudan, and as Sudanese church leaders continue to face calls from the government to hand over control of their churches.

Five Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) leaders were detained in Khartoum last month for refusing to hand over ownership of their church to government officials, by transferring authority from an elected committee to a state-sanctioned rival committee.

Previously in September four members of SCOC’s senior leadership team were told to expect charges to be brought against them after they refused to hand over the Church’s office premises to a committee of government officials.

In May, SCOC leaders risked writing an open letter of protest to the Sudanese government about what it called “the systematic violation of Christian religious freedoms”.

The letter from the Church denomination was distributed over social media and detailed the “hard conditions” it had faced in recent years. It specifically mentioned the confiscation of Church properties, as well as the demolition of churches, government failure to allocate land for construction of any new churches, and travel restrictions on senior church leaders.

The SCOC letter called on national, regional and international human rights institutions to intervene on behalf of the Church in Sudan to ensure an end to the violations.

In June, a Sudanese doctor sentenced to death – preceded by 100 lashes – in 2014 for her Christian faith told World Watch Monitor that the Sudan government discriminates against Christians.

The EU Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ján Figeľ, raised the issue of church demolitions in March during a visit to Sudan and was told some of the demolitions had been temporarily stopped.

In a letter to the new Minister of Religious Endowments, Figeľ wrote in May: “I am sure you would agree with me that these events generate tensions and go counter [to] the many efforts deployed by Sudan to preserve its capital of religious diversity.”

The SCOC is not the only Church to face intimidation by the Sudanese government. In June, 25 churches from other denominations, including Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, the Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian, and Pentecostal churches, as well as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, were designated for demolition. The Sudanese authorities claimed they violated designated purposes for these plots of land.

The SCOC letter to the Sudanese government named specific departments for the “abusive procedures” against the Church in Sudan. “We hold the National Intelligence and Security Services [NISS] responsible for the damages and other consequences [that] can be caused due to their confiscation of documents. We also hold the land authorities of the Ministry of the Planning and Infrastructure Development of the Khartoum state responsible for the attacks against the Church and [for] the financial damages caused,” the letter stated.

Read John J. Sullivan’s full speech here.

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