There were reports of the government detaining Muslims on religious grounds, detaining church members, arresting or intimidating suspected proselytizers, denying permits for the construction of churches, closing or demolishing pre‑existing churches, censoring religious materials and leaders, and restricting non-Muslim religious groups and missionaries from operating in or entering the country
The government instituted new amendments to the criminal code widening the legal definition of apostasy to ensure the respect of religions and to prevent words or actions that might be considered disrespectful and spur social tensions. These amendments went into effect in January. International and domestic human rights observers expressed concern that the amendments targeted and discriminated against smaller Muslim groups, especially the Shia, who had alternative approaches to Islam.
On September 7, local media reported that authorities charged Sufi Imam Dirdiri Abd al-Rahman with apostasy for allegedly stating during a sermon that prostration in prayer to someone other than God is permissible. He was later released on bail and subsequently denied the accusation in an interview with a local newspaper. The newspaper reported that a member of the Salafist Ansar al-Sunna group initiated the complaint leading to the charges against Abd al-Rahman. He was acquitted on December 20 due to lack of evidence.
On November 2 and 3, authorities in the Kalakla area of Khartoum detained 27 adherents of a form of Islam which takes the Quran as the sole source of religious authority, and rejects the sanctity of the hadiths , contrary to the government’s official view of Islam. The arrests came during a seminar in which two individuals were leading a group discussion regarding their views of Islamic teachings. Police charged members of the group with crimes including disturbing public order and apostasy under the newly broadened apostasy provision. The courts dropped charges against two of the defendants after they retracted their statements and reaffirmed their belief in the religious authority of the hadiths, leaving a remaining 25 defendants. At a December 9 court session, the judge questioned the individuals on the technicalities of their rituals, including the order of ceremonial procedures and the order in which they offered certain prayers. With the exception of the two defendants who retracted their earlier statements, all adherents reaffirmed their practice of Islam and were charged with apostasy. After six weeks of detention, a court granted the defendants bail on December 14. Court proceedings were scheduled to resume in February 2016.
On December 19, Kowa Shamal and Hassan Abdelrahim, both pastors at the Sudanese Church of Christ in Khartoum, were arrested in their homes by authorities from the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). Their detention followed the arrest of Christian activist and member of the Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Talahon Nigosi Kassa Ratta, on December 14 in Khartoum. According to a religious organization, Shamal was conditionally released on December 21 and required to report to the NISS office daily, where he was held from morning until evening. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that Ratta was last seen at Kober Men’s Prison at the end of December, but was moved to an unknown location. The location and charges against Abdelrahim remained unknown as of the end of the year.
In December 2014 and January 2015, authorities arrested two South Sudanese pastors, Reverend Yat Michael Ruot Puk and Reverend Peter Yen Reith. Rev. Michael was arrested after he addressed a congregation at the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church in Khartoum. Authorities arrested Rev. Peter after he made inquiries about the whereabouts of his associate, Rev. Michael. The NISS arrested both clergymen and held them incommunicado at an unknown location for three months. On March 1, the government charged the pastors with eight offenses including treason, espionage, and undermining the constitution, all punishable by death. On March 2, authorities transferred the pastors to a high security prison. The pastors went on a hunger strike on March 28 and 29 to protest their continued detention without trial and lack of access to lawyers. The case eventually came before a court on May 19. In June authorities again denied the pastors visitation rights, preventing any access to family or legal aid. Following a hearing on August 5, a Khartoum court convicted Rev. Michael of inciting hatred and Rev. Peter of breaching public peace. Both were released the same day based on time already served, but authorities banned them from traveling outside the country. NGOs reported both pastors fled the country due to fear of continued detention and persecution. In November, on government appeal, the court reversed its original decision and called for the re‑arrest and retrial of the pastors in absentia. Representatives from the Christian community stated the government’s decision to re‑arrest and retry the pastors was an effort to intimidate the evangelical Christian community. The basis for the judgment remained unclear. At year’s end, the legal defence team had finalized plans to submit an appeal to the Supreme Court to challenge the Court of Appeals’ November 19 retrial decision.
In December the legal defense team that defended Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag in the original apostasy case brought against her in 2014 submitted in absentia an appeal to the Constitutional Court in order to challenge the constitutionality of the charge of apostasy, which the lawyers said was primarily a religious concept. The legal team reported that in 2014 charges against Ishag were dropped on the basis of her state of mental well-being, not because the court should not have found her guilty in the first place.
In August the father of Isheikh Mohamed Ali Kadod expressed concerns because Isheikh, who was born a Muslim, converted to Christianity. Apostasy charges were formally filed in November, but it was not confirmed by whom. The judge ordered that Isheikh be assessed for mental illness. The outcome of the assessment was unknown. The case was ongoing at the end of the year.
During the July demolition of the Sudanese Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPECS) in Bahri, police arrested Pastor Hafiz Mengisto, a member of the church’s leadership, and Mohaned Mustafa, the church’s legal advisor. Both men were charged with obstructing a public servant from performing the duties of his office and were released on bail. The trial began on December 14. On December 23, the case against Mustafa was dropped on the basis that the prosecution had failed to follow procedure when initiating a criminal case against a registered lawyer. On December 29, the court acquitted Mengisto.
On June 25, police arrested 12 Christian female students of South Sudanese and Nuban origin after a ceremony at the Evangelical Baptist Church in Khartoum North for “indecent dress” for wearing trousers. Authorities released two of the women from police custody the same day without charges. At a court hearing on July 6, a judge deemed the dress worn by one of the women in court as “indecent,” fined her 500 Sudanese pounds (SDG) ($75), and ordered her to return to court on August 16 to face the initial charge of “indecent dress.” On August 16, the court sentenced her to 20 lashes and another fine of 500 SDG ($75). Authorities, however, suspended the 20 lashes (meaning they could be reimposed if she were again convicted of a similar charge) and the woman did not appeal the ruling. On July 14, a court sentenced another of the accused to a fine of 500 SDG ($75). The court convicted three other women on August 12, and fined them 50 SDG ($8) each. The court acquitted the other five defendants on August 12 and 16.
Some churches said the government repeatedly denied them permits to construct churches or obtain new land permits. According to various church representatives, the government’s decisions on which permits to grant were skewed towards mosques and not based on clear regulations. The government justified its policy of not granting permits for the construction of new churches by stating the churches did not meet the government’s population density parameters and zoning plans.
The government closed or demolished places of worship and cultural centers affiliated with religious institutions. International observers noted Christian places of worship were disproportionately affected compared to Muslim institutions by zoning changes. According to the government, the places of worship that were demolished or closed were those that had not been established formally after South Sudan’s separation and lacked proper land permits or institutional registration. The government stated mosques, churches, schools, hospitals, and residences were all affected equally by the urban planning projects. There were no confirmed reports of destruction of Muslim places of worship during the year.
In late October armed police oversaw the demolition of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Omdurman. According to the Khartoum State Governor’s Office, authorities had informed the church leaders about impending zoning changes that would affect the church and the greater area over recent years and encouraged them to relocate. According to local sources, however, authorities informed church leaders about the planned demolition only 24 hours in advance. Despite an appeal to the local commissioner, the church was partially destroyed. Sources stated this was the third time authorities in Omdurman had attempted to demolish the church. A mosque on the same plot of land was left standing. According to authorities, the government would provide financial compensation and new land in another area of Khartoum to the church and other institutions affected by the rezoning. As of the end of the year, the church had not received compensation.
On October 27, authorities demolished the Sudanese Church of Christ in the Karari area of Omdurman. According to church representatives, government authorities stated the church was built on government land and demolished it without prior notification. Church representatives filed a complaint with the MGE in November. As of the end of the year, the church had not received any compensation.
In July security forces demolished portions of the SPECS church of Bahri, which had been in a legal battle to retain ownership of its property since 2013. According to SPECS representatives, the government-appointed Evangelical Community Council had sold the church’s land to private investors. In August NISS officers prevented a high-level foreign delegation from viewing the church premises and meeting with church leadership. On August 31, the Administrative Court of Appeal ruled the MGE’s actions in appointing members to the church council to facilitate sale of the church were illegal and an interference with church matters. In October the SPECS won a related appeal against the investors. As of the end of the year, court orders cancelling the investors’ claim to the church’s property were still pending, portions of the church remained closed, and the church had not received any compensation.
Local media cited government officials as stating the Iranian culture center in Khartoum, which the government ordered to close in September 2014, had sought to spread Shia Islam in the country and, as such, posed a national security threat. Members of the Shia community said the government discriminated against them in professional settings and they were not able to openly identify or practice their faith.
The Constitutional Court agreed to review the government’s closure of the Khartoum Cultural Center of the Pentecostal Church in 2014. Authorities closed the center, stating the facility where it held church services was in a zoned residential area. The government seized the property, despite the Pentecostal Church’s holding legal title to the land. To keep the facility open, Church leaders subsequently agreed to use the center only for administrative purposes and not for worship services. The court did not announce a final ruling in the case by year’s end.
At year’s end, there was no resolution to the case involving the government’s demolition of the Church of Jesus Christ in Alizba, Khartoum North, in June 2014. According to the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC), the church had not received any compensation. The government allowed church members to pray in an open space in the general area, but would not allow them to construct a church. Church officials stated the government has denied permit requests since the 1990s, when the church opened. In November 2014, the MGE stated the church had not filed for a plot of land and, therefore, the church had been established informally and never obtained proper land permits or registration. Because many of the church’s members were Nuban, it is difficult to categorize this incident as being solely based on religious identity.
Government officials continued to state Islamic principles should inform official policies and often pointed to sharia as the basis for Sudan’s legal framework. President Bashir and other senior figures frequently emphasized the Islamic majority of the country and stated it was the government’s duty to “protect the rights of the majority religion.”
In October the government engaged civil society and political parties in a National Dialogue to look at future political reforms, including whether future legal reforms, such as changes to the INC, should be based on sharia or remain secular. The National Dialogue was extended from January to February 2016, to allow for more participation from opposition groups. Some participating groups argued for strengthening the role of Islam in government and politics, while other groups called for greater secularism.
The MGE said decisions regarding the approval and administration of religious institutions should be considered a federal (not state) competency, in order to better control the activities of violent extremist groups.
There were reports government security services closely monitored mosques.
Security authorities imposed sanctions on imams, ranging from stern official warnings to arrest and detention, for those accused of making anti-government statements, inciting hatred, advocating violence, or espousing “takfiri ideology,” which considers other Muslims who do not follow a prescribed form of Islam apostates.
The government restricted non-Muslim religious groups from operating or entering the country and continued to monitor activities and censor material published by religious institutions. The MGE said it granted a limited number of Christian missionary groups permission to engage in humanitarian activities and promote Muslim-Christian cooperation.
Some Christian churches reported they were required to pay or negotiate taxes on items such as vehicles, even though the government had previously granted them or their humanitarian institutions tax-exempt status.
Some church officials reported the government refused to grant, or delayed renewing, work and residency visas to church employees of foreign origin, including missionaries and clergy, or to individuals it thought would proselytize in public places. Individuals not in possession of a valid visa were required to pay a 40 SDG ($6.25) fine for every day they were not in status. The government only granted residence permits with less than a year’s validity. According to some Catholic Church officials, the government relaxed some restrictions on the entry of foreign clergy during the year.
The government closely scrutinized those suspected of proselytizing and used administrative rationales, or other aspects of the law such as immigration status, to either deport or exert financial pressure on them. As a result, most non-Muslim groups refrained from public proselytizing.
Some prominent ministries requested information on religious affiliation on their employment applications. Some official government documents, such as birth certificates, also required identification of an individual’s religion.
In response to reports that at least 70 university students left the country to support Da’esh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), the government publicly supported initiatives aimed to counter violent extremism.
The government often stated it did not have non‑Muslim teachers available to teach Christian courses in public schools. Some public schools excused non‑Muslims from Islamic education classes. Some private schools, including Christian schools, received government-provided Muslim teachers to teach Islamic subjects, but non‑Muslim students are not required to attend those classes. The Ministry of Education removed Shia related references from its curriculum in 2014.
The government restricted some religiously based political parties. The Republican Brothers Party, the registration of which the government had rejected in 2014 because its ideology promoted secularism, thus contradicting the sharia basis of the constitution, was unable to participate in 2015 national elections and filed a case with the Constitutional Court.
The government occasionally referred to rebel groups as “secular” or “anti-Islamic.”
A few Christian politicians held seats in the government. The MGE Director of Church Affairs remained a Muslim.
The government closed Tearfund, a faith-based NGO that provided humanitarian services to children in Darfur. There was no explanation for the closure; observers said it was unclear whether the closure was related to the organization’s religious affiliation.
Prisons provided prayer spaces for Muslims. Some prisons, such as the Women’s Prison in Omdurman, had dedicated areas for Christian observance. Christian clergy held services in prisons, but access was irregular.
The government allowed the SCC, an ecumenical body representing 12 member churches in Sudan and affiliated with the World Council of Churches, to engage in civic education, advocacy, peace and reconciliation, relief, and development services, either directly or through its member churches.