Christians face 'growing harassment' in post-breakup Sudan

Christians face 'growing harassment' in post-breakup Sudan
This handout picture taken on April 15, 2014 and released on April 23 by the the United Nations Mission in South Sudan shows debris outside the Kali-Ballee Mosque in the oil town of Bentiu, Unity State. More than 200 civilians were reportedly killed and over 400 wounded, and there were also massacres at a church, hospital and an abandoned UN World Food Programme compound.

KHARTOUM - Church properties have been bulldozed and seized in a climate of growing harassment of minority Christians in Islamist-run Sudan since the south's 2011 independence, its council of churches said.

Kori Elramla Kori Kuku, general secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches, told AFP that harassment has been on the rise ever since the separation three years ago of South Sudan, whose population follow mainly Christian and traditional beliefs.

A death sentence issued in May to a pregnant Sudanese Christian woman convicted of apostasy from Islam drew worldwide attention to the issue of religious freedom in Sudan.

Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag took refuge at the US embassy in Khartoum after a higher court annulled her conviction.

On Thursday, the Italian government flew her and her family out to Rome.

Away from the limelight, Kuku said in an interview Wednesday, churches have faced numerous challenges and threats from Sudanese authorities.

"The situation is very bad," he said.

"After separation, everything changed completely. The freedom we used to have now is denied."

He said the Council is concerned after a Sudanese newspaper report that the religious affairs ministry will no longer allow the building of new churches, since most Christians were Southerners who had left.

But a senior ruling party official, Rabbie Abdelatti Ebaid, told AFP he was unaware of any such decision.

In practice, churches have already faced obstacles, according to Kuku.

The Sudan Church of Christ in North Khartoum was "bulldozed" because, according to officials, it lacked legal title to the land, he said.

Authorities have also confiscated a building housing the Sudan Interior Church in the central Khartoum Two district, Kuku said at his office.

And state security agents last week halted a workshop organised by ALARM, the African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries, Kuku said.

The peace-building group had invited Muslims and Christians from Sudan's war zones of Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan.

- 'What is wrong ?' -

Kuku said security agents intervened came shortly after the workshop opened with readings from both the Quran and the Bible.

"We are not forcing anybody," he said. "What is wrong if we read the Bible ?"

Deportations, confiscation and destruction of church property, and other anti-Christian actions have increased since December 2012, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a British-based group, said in May.

A dozen denominations including Catholic and Coptic Orthodox officially belong to his Council, but Kuku says he also has a responsibility toward more than 12 other denominations.

"We feel our rights are not respected even though the constitution is good," guaranteeing religious freedom, said Kuku, interviewed at the Council's headquarters in a low-rise building which carries no sign, only a small cross in the metal grillwork above an open door.

He agreed, however, that worship itself takes place unhindered, although security agents monitor the services.

Ebaid of the ruling National Congress Party said that even if something is constitutionally guaranteed, "you have to follow the procedures and the steps" laid down in associated laws.

There is no clear data on how many Christians remain in Sudan, but Ebaid said "they have economic weight, they have intellectual weight and even their opinion is respected."

They were not "in the margin" of society.

At a breaking of a fast event organised by the Coptic church during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, President Omar al-Bashir said Sudan was a "model in boosting values of religious tolerance", according to official media.

However, Western governments and rights activists expressed alarm over the case of Ishag, who had been sentenced to hang for apostasy under Islamic sharia law which outlaws conversions on pain of death.

"I know we are a minority. But we have a right as Sudanese citizens to worship, to build the churches, to exercise our religious freedom", Kuku said.

"We are not hindering them to worship God. Why are they hindering us, the minority?"

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