State Department Religious Freedom Report Cites Lack of Progress in Sudan

and U.S. policy continues to not match conditions on the ground

Posted by Mark Hackett on May 29th, 2018

Every year, the U.S. Department of State releases the International Religious Freedom Report. This unique document examines the status of religious rights, legal protections for religious minorities, and more in countries around the globe.

This report is required by U.S. law and is used by a wide variety of actors. This includes the U.S. Congress and the Executive branch as a factual resource for decision making and policy design. Since these reports are free and open to the public to view, the information within them is often times viewed by non-governmental organizations (including us) that work on a variety of international issues, scholars and researchers, and other groups and individuals who work outside of the government. 

In our case, we examine the Sudan section of the report to see if it matches the following areas:

  • what we see and hear directly on the ground in Sudan and Sudanese refugee camps
  • what our Sudanese partners report to us from the ground
  • what media (both international and Sudan-based) is reporting on Sudan

While these reports frequently provide relevant details, they are more useful to be viewed as a broad overview of what the State Department sees as progression or digression on an array of religious freedom issues. You can see the entire Sudan section of the 2017 report here, but I have highlighted some key areas below that are cause for concern:

Religious Minorities In Sudan Remain Oppressed

The report makes it clear that religious minorities in Sudan, including Christians and Shia Muslims, remain oppressed. Church leaders in Sudan continued to state that it was extremely difficult to import non-Islamic religious materials such as Bibles and gain access to property to build churches. Non-Muslim women were punished underneath sharia law despite their beliefs. According to State:

There were reports government security services continued to monitor mosques closely for Friday sermon content. Observers stated authorities provided talking points and required imams to use them in their sermons...

A Khartoum court in January convicted a Czech Christian aid worker, a Sudanese Church of Christ pastor, and a Sudanese student from Dafur of crimes including espionage and “warring against the state..."

International and domestic human rights observers continued to express concern that 2015 legal amendments widening the definition of apostasy targeted and discriminated against minority Muslim groups, especially Shia, whose practice of Islam differs from that of the Sunni majority...

According to reports the Public Order Police frequently charged women with “indecent dress,” and there were numerous court convictions. Religious leaders and government officials confirmed that Muslim and Christian women were fined and lashed on a daily basis in Khartoum for wearing pants and other dress considered indecent by the Public Order Police...

Many individuals from Muslim minorities, such as Shia or Quranist groups, reported that their places of worship have remained closed since 2014. They also stated that they needed to keep a low profile regarding their places of worship, as well as religious events and gatherings...


The Bashir Regime Is Not Clamping Down On Anti-Semitism

The Bashir regime also did little, if anything, to combat anti-Semitism. The report specifically states:

On August 25 when Muhammad Hassan Tanoun, imam of Khartoum’s Islamist Al-Noor Mosque, delivered a sermon in which he stated, “ever since [the Jews] appeared on the face of the Earth, they have been the head of the serpent” and that “all things evil and all the tragedies on Earth are caused by their schemes, their deception, and their wickedness.” He also said, “How can the movement for normalization [of ties with Israel] be spreading in Muslim countries, even though those Jews are your worst enemies, oh Muslims?” His sermon followed statements made by Investment Minister Mubarak Al-Fadil Al-Mahdi on August 21 in favor of normalizing ties with Israel.

In another reaction to the investment minister’s remarks on normalizing ties with Israel, Major General Younis Mahmoud stated during an August 23 interview on Khartoum TV, reported on the Memri TV website, that the Quran provided evidence that “these Jews, these Zionists, never adhere to treaties” adding that “the fingerprints of the Jews and Zionists are on today’s problems.”

On November 25, fans of the al-Hilal soccer team displayed a portrait of Adolf Hitler and a sign that spelled out the word “Holocaust” during a match against a rival team. While the team condemned the fans responsible for the incident, its Facebook page posted pictures of the fans holding up the signs and portrait. The Sudanese Football Association (SFA) fined the team 40,000 SDG ($4,400) and banned the fans responsible from attending al-Hilal’s first 2018 game. As of December the International Football Association (FIFA) was investigating the incident, as was the team and the SFA. The UK-based organization Football Against Racism in Europe described the team’s fans celebrating the Holocaust and Adolf Hitler as “a gruesome first for Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Sudan's Government Is Still Covering Up Alleged Crimes

For decades, a key policy of the Sudanese government has been to deny and attempt to cover up the crimes it commits against the Sudanese people. A specific incident of this cited in the report:

On January 29, a Khartoum court convicted Czech Christian aid worker Petr Jasek, Sudanese Church of Christ pastor Hassan Abdelrahim, and Sudanese student Abdelmoneim Abdumaula, from Darfur, of eight crimes, including espionage and “warring against the state.” On January 29, a court sentenced Jasek to life imprisonment, and Abdelrahim and Abdumaula to 12 years’ imprisonment. The men had been in detention since their initial arrest in December 2015. They had reportedly donated money to fund medical treatments for Ali Omer, a Darfuri student injured during antigovernment demonstrations in 2013, and documented alleged abuses against Christians who said they were persecuted in the Nuba Mountains and Darfur. Authorities arrested Jasek at Khartoum Airport when he attempted to leave the country with photos and documentation of abuses against Sudanese Muslims who converted to Christianity. Authorities said Jasek had illegally entered Sudan via South Sudan and provided money to rebel movements, and that Jasek, Abdelrahim, and Abdumaula conducted interviews and took pictures without obtaining prior governmental permission.

U.S. Policy & Engagement On These Issues Is...Interesting

U.S. foreign policy towards Sudan has been through a roller coaster of changes the past two years despite a severe lack of governance progress in the country. On the issue of relgious freedom though, U.S. government personnel remain fairly engaged and aware of what religous minorities in Sudan are up against. The last bit of the Sudan section of the report covers this, but here's a highlight:

In May an official from the Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom met in Khartoum with government representatives, including Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour. They discussed ways Sudan could take concrete steps toward substantially improving the state of religious freedom in the country by addressing the concerns that had led to its designation as a Country of Particular Concern. The official stressed the need to address religious freedom concerns and urged a formal response to the proposed religious freedom action plan provided by the embassy in 2016. During the trip, the official also visited Bahri and Omdurman churches, and met with both SPECS factions, the Sudan Interreligious Council, and several other religious groups. Embassy officials proposed a roundtable on the registration and construction of religious properties as an important first step in such a process. 

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