Criminal case against religious leaders reopened

CSW has learned that a criminal case against the elected president and senior leaders of the Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) has been re-opened.

Eight leaders of the SCOC were initially arrested on 23 August 2017 and charged with trespassing on the church headquarters. They were also accused of refusing to hand over administrative control to an unelected church committee led by Mr Angelo Alzaki and appointed by the government.

The case against the leaders was dismissed by the court of first instance on 9 August 2018.  In his ruling, the judge commented that the case centred entirely on an administrative dispute which was not criminal in nature. The decision  was hailed as a triumph for religious freedom within the criminal courts in Sudan. However the verdict was appealed, and subsequently the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court determined that a new criminal trial should proceed.

Lawyers working on the appeal informed CSW that the evidence used to support the higher courts consisted of documents submitted to the Ministry of Guidance and Religious Endowments, the body responsible for registering and regulating religious organisations in Sudan. The ministry has been widely reported to discriminate against religious minorities, including by issuing a ban on the construction of churches in Khartoum and interfering with the administration of Christian denominations.

CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: “We are extremely concerned to hear that the executive committee of the Sudanese Church of Christ is once again facing criminal charges. The re-opening of the case against them highlights the manifold discrimination and harassment faced by religious and ethnic minorities in Sudan. It also underscores the vulnerability of Sudan’s marginalised communities and the urgent need for legal reform to protect the rights of these communities.”

The SCOC is a predominantly Nuban denomination and has experienced both religious and ethnic discrimination. The experiences of the SCOC mirror those of the Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church (SEPC), whose land has been sold to developers by a government-backed church committee which was not constituted in accordance with church procedures.

This case is one of the first concerning violations of freedom of religion or belief since former President Omar al Bashir was deposed in April. Days after he was ousted, religious leaders, including members of the SCOC and the SEPC, addressed protestors at the main sit in site in Khartoum and called for democracy, protection of human rights and respect of equal citizenship in Sudan.

However, the post-Bashir transition period has been marred by serious violence and attacks on civilians by members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a militia group led by Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo. The attacks led to the African Union (AU) suspending the country from the regional body. AU and Ethiopian efforts to mediate between the military and civilian protestors resulted in the signing of a political agreement on 17 July, and the two parties are currently negotiating a constitutional agreement. The civilians, represented by the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), have stated they will appoint marginalised groups, including Christians, in their government.

Mr Thomas continued: “CSW welcomes the statements by the FFC regarding its intention to ensure equal representation of communities that have been historically marginalised. However, full and comprehensive reforms are needed in order to realise the call for freedom, justice and peace for all Sudanese nationals on the basis of equal citizenship. We urge all parties to work swiftly and thoroughly to ensure the most marginalised communities are represented in the transitional period.”