By Tim Scheiderer
As one flips through history’s volumes, fear of annihilation among minority people groups is a constant in many nations’ annals. Examples include the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Germany, and more recently (1990s), residents of the Nuba Mountains in southern Sudan who have experienced the lethal heat of an oppressive authority.
It is estimated tens of thousands of Christians, along with other people groups, were part of the two million who were killed during the Second Sudanese Civil War. Another four million were driven from their homes and lands. The goal of the Islamic regime was to destroy utterly the Christians and other Nubian residents. Thankfully, it was not accomplished. But, there is now a resumption of attacks on Christians, and the sheer terror of such a heartless campaign is gripping those in the Sudanese mountain region.
The country of Sudan has been embroiled in war and conflict since its independence from Great Britain in 1956. During British rule, the crown segregated the Arab population from the rest of the population. Christians and others were pushed into the Nuba Mountains and southern Sudan. Fifty-five years of civil war ended with a permanent referendum in 2011 which gave South Sudan its independence. Over the years, many Christians have emigrated to South Sudan.
There remains, however, a concentrated number of Christians in the Nuba Mountain region, which is located in the South Kordofan province of Sudan. These Christians, and other Sudanese minorities in the region, continue to be sorely affected by the Sharia-based policies of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city. Sudan is ruled by an Islamic-based government. Ninety percent of its 33.6 million residents are Muslim.
Overall, “government policies and societal pressure promote conversion to Islam,” according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom [USCIRF]. Sudanese law prescribes harsh punishments for certain offenses: death for converting away from Islam to another religion (apostasy); death or lashing for adultery; cross-amputations for theft; and prison, flogging, or fines for committing blasphemy against Islam. These laws, based upon Sharia law, affect Christians, Shia Muslims, and other religious minorities.
Experts believe the complete Islamization of Sudan is the goal of the government. The “national laws [that] reflect a Sharia system of jurisprudence” contribute to this belief. Also, according to USCIRF, school textbooks present a prejudicial view of non-Muslims. Another factor is that Christians are unable to obtain building permits to construct churches while Muslims are provided permits plus funds to build mosques. Finally, in 2014, minutes from a meeting of Sudanese military leaders reveal a plot to target and starve those in the Nuba region.
“We must not allow them to harvest these crops. We should prevent them. Good harvest means supplies to the war effort. We must starve them,” said Lt. General Siddiig Aamir, director of Sudan’s military intelligence and security.
USCIRF reports Christians in South Kordofan are arrested and killed in “routine” fashion. In addition, the government regularly attacks religious facilities and closes churches as well as Christian academic centers, and confiscates printed, religious materials. One particular instance presents the horrific conditions of persecution as told by an eyewitness.
“On the Tuesday after the fighting started, I was at school with my students. I saw a vehicle with SAF soldiers surround an ECS [Episcopal Church of Sudan] near the school. There were Christians inside the church praying. SAF soldiers started shooting [into] the church at the people. SAF soldiers went into the church and pulled out a Christian, captured him, and shot him. As this was going on, I and my students were hiding behind the school, but could still see the SAF killing people with guns and knives.” – Kadugli, school teacher
These violent atrocities and human rights violations have pushed the U.S. State Department to classify Sudan as a “country of particular concern [CPC],” for 15 consecutive years. This designation enables the U.S. government to withhold “certain appropriated funds available for assistance to the government of Sudan.”
The St. Charles Institute [SCI] spoke with Elhag ali Warrag Sidahmed Warrag, editor of Hurriyat Sudan, about details of the persecutory conditions of religious minorities in Sudan and needed reforms. Mr. Warrag graduated from the University of Khartoum in 1984 with a degree in economics and social sciences. For a time, he was a member of the Sudanese Communist Party. He has fought, however, for democratic ideals to take hold in Sudan for the past 20 years. During this period, he was forced to go underground for ten years. Currently, he lives in Cairo.
St. Charles Institute: What are the different forms of persecution in Sudan? For instance, how often are churches being seized?
Elhag Warrag: Regarding churches, persecution is systematic. Official authorities or fanatics, supported by the government, demolish many churches. Also, they persecute priests. Many are arrested and brought to partisan courts. They deny Christians the right to preach. Also, according to article 126 of Sudanese penal code, [if one commits] apostasy, you will be sentenced to death. Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced [under] this article and was saved only with international pressure. Also, many Christian properties are usually confiscated and robbed by security agents, i.e. cars, computers, and even houses. Many Sudanese who [have] converted to Christianity are continuously harassed, arrested, and tortured. I know many who have left the country.
SCI: Do children of Christians suffer as well?
Mr. Warrag: Definitely, can you imagine that the official curriculum of elementary schools tells the pupils that one of their duties as Muslims is to watch carefully non-Muslims?! The official discourse in schools, as well as in the media and mosques, is anti-humane and anti-Christian.
According to Islamism, which is the official ideology in Sudan, non-Muslims do not have the basic rights as human beings—even [the] right of living.
SCI: Are there many Christian schools in Sudan?
Mr. Warrag: They are not many, but Christian schools have a very good reputation. Many enlightened Muslims prefer them. This is why they have been always targeted by the regime.
Many American and western teachers [have been] arrested and removed from the country.
Also, [the regime] infiltrated the staff in certain schools and planned a lot [of] conspiracies and problems. [One] incident: they accused a British teacher of attacking the prophet Mohammed and tried to mobilize the whole community against [the school]. The whole matter was fake.
SCI: Are there any areas in Sudan where religious minorities suffer more persecution than other areas?
Mr. Warrag: In rural areas, oppression is much, much more because there they use war as an excuse and media coverage is lacking. Tens of people, Christians and Muslims, are now detained in containers in Blue Nile and Nuba mountains. At least, four detainees died because of torture in these containers.
SCI: So what is the mood of Christians in Sudan? Are some afraid? Are some rejoicing to be counted worthy by God to suffer for His name?
Mr. Warrag: [Not many] are demoralized. … In the last session of the court, four Christians now face the death [sentence]. More than [a] hundred gathered in front of the court and sang Christian songs in an undoubted sign of courage and dedication. Eventually, all humane Sudanese Christians and Muslims shall overcome.
SCI: How can the United States government help end the persecution from a policy standpoint?
Mr. Warrag: I think lifting sanctions or relief of debts should be conditioned with specific reforms, including freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. This implies legal and institutional reforms that include the abolition of article 126 of the penal code and an end of impunity [for the sake] of security. Besides reforms in the security sector, there should be a guarantee that leaders of different organizations are professional, non-partisan, and tolerant. Also, there must be a new [school] curriculum, which is modern and humane.
Official media should be, at least, neutral and stop propagating hatred. Fortunately, enough of the regime is [financially] bankrupt and is in need of help of the West. And this is the moment to press for drastic major changes that should be irreversible. And we should be clear now, there is an ongoing battle in all the Muslim world between Islamists and enlightened [Muslims]. The West should support the enlightened. Not only because of its humane obligation, but also because of its security and stability.
The battle in the Muslim world is of global significance. As the West fought against fascism and totalitarianism, it should fight against Islamist fascism, which is more brutal. Unfortunately, many of the liberals in the West tolerate Islamist fascism as part of their embrace of cultural diversity, but intolerance [of others] should not be tolerated.
Conservatives and right wing parties understand the threat of Islamist fascism, but they do not describe the battle accurately. It is not against Islam because there are many interpretations of Islam, and we, as enlightened Muslims, cannot abandon Islam for the fanatics. We [are] fighting for our humane interpretation to prevail. We cannot prevail by leaving ordinary Muslims for Islamists. At the same time, we cannot win if we do not name things exactly. [The battle] is against specific violent extremism, which is Islamist fascism. We cannot fight against unless we specify. The fight is about interpretations and ideas.