Christian Victims in Sudan’s Ongoing Military Conflict: Injuries and Implications

JUBA, South Sudan, May 24, 2023 (Morning Star News) – Reports indicate that amidst the turmoil within the Sudanese military, there have been targeted attacks on church buildings and mosques in Sudan. One such incident involved a priest and several Christians who were shot and injured in an assault seemingly motivated by anti-Christian sentiments.

In the early hours of May 14, unidentified gunmen launched an attack on the Coptic Orthodox Church of Mar Girgis (St. George) in the Masalma area of Omdurman, across the River Nile from Khartoum. The assailants injured the Rev. Arsanius Zaria, his son Girgis, a church cantor referred to as Seifein, a guard identified as Habashi, and a parishioner named Safwat Shawqy, according to Egyptian news outlet Watani. All five individuals received medical treatment and have since recovered, as confirmed by Bishop Anba Sarapamon of Atbara and Omdurman.

According to Reuters, the assailants arrived shortly before midnight on May 13 and unleashed a barrage of gunfire, calling the victims “infidels” while demanding their conversion to Islam. Witnesses reported that the attackers shouted, “Where is the gold? Where is the money? Where are the dollars?” and derogatorily referred to the victims as “Egyptians, sons of dogs.”

Eyewitnesses stated that the attackers concealed their identities with scarves, leaving their eyes uncovered, and wore mismatched clothing that included items resembling uniforms of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a group engaged in conflict with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) since April 15. The assailants reportedly looted and vandalized the church premises.

The ongoing fighting between the RSF and SAF, who shared military rule in Sudan following a coup in October 2021, has caused great distress among civilians in Khartoum and other areas, resulting in the loss of over 1,000 lives. The Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the RSF of attacking the Mar Girgis church, a claim denied by the RSF, which stated that the assailants were extremist terrorists linked to the Sudanese army, who had obtained RSF uniforms.

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The Democratic Lawyers Front, a local group, informed the media that the attack was carried out by an armed group in a non-military vehicle. They also reported that the El Azhari Mosque and the Bur’i El Dereisa Mosque in Khartoum were bombed during the military conflict, leading to the death of a worshipper.

Against this backdrop, General Abdelfattah al-Burhan of the SAF and RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who previously served as vice president, was in power when civilian parties agreed in March on a framework for establishing a democratic transition in April. However, disagreements over military structure derailed the final approval.

While Burhan aimed to bring the RSF, a paramilitary organization with roots in the Janjaweed militias that supported former dictator Omar al-Bashir, under the regular army’s control within two years, Dagalo insisted on integration within a minimum of ten years. The conflict erupted into an open military confrontation on April 15.

Both military leaders have backgrounds rooted in Islamism but have attempted to present themselves to the international community as proponents of democracy and religious freedom. Amidst the fighting, on May 15, the RSF seized a cathedral in central Khartoum after evacuating the Coptic Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary near the presidential palace the day before, converting it into a military headquarters, as reported by Egyptian news outlet Mada.

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Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), an advocacy group, highlighted that the RSF had reportedly been intimidating and harassing the church community for a week before forcing them to leave. It was also reported that on May 16, the RSF stormed buildings of the Episcopal church on Khartoum’s First Street to establish a strategic base. Additionally, a vehicle belonging to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Khartoum was stolen at gunpoint.

Earlier incidents include an attack on a Coptic Church in Khartoum North (Bahri) on May 3, and the bombing and partial burning of the Evangelical Church in the same area in April, as reported by CSW. The Gerief Bible School in the Gerief West area of Khartoum was bombed on April 28, resulting in the destruction of its worship auditorium, halls, and student dormitories, according to a local source cited by Morning Star News. On April 17, gunmen raided the compound of the Anglican cathedral in Khartoum, as reported by the United Kingdom-based Church Times.

Sudan currently ranks No. 10 on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List, which ranks countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The ranking has risen from No. 13 the previous year due to ongoing attacks by non-state actors and the failure to enact religious freedom reforms at the local level.

Sudan had briefly dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in six years when it initially ranked No. 13 in the 2021 World Watch List. According to the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report, conditions have slightly improved with the decriminalization of apostasy and the halt of church demolitions. However, conservative Islam continues to dominate society, resulting in discrimination against Christians, including challenges in obtaining permits for constructing church buildings.

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Sudan was removed from the list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) in 2019, which is reserved for nations that engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.” It was then placed on the watch list. In December 2020, Sudan was further removed from the Special Watch List.

Following the ousting of former President Omar al-Bashir’s Islamist dictatorship in 2019, Sudan had made progress in religious freedom for two years. However, with the military coup on October 25, 2021, fears of state-sponsored persecution resurfaced. Abdalla Hamdok, who had served as prime minister of the transitional government since September 2019, was detained under house arrest for nearly a month before being released and reinstated through a fragile power-sharing agreement in November 2021.

Hamdock had been tasked with combating deep-rooted corruption and an Islamist “deep state” from Bashir’s regime, the same deep state suspected of orchestrating the coup on October 25, 2021.

Non-state actors continued to persecute Christians both before and after the coup.

The Christian population in Sudan is estimated at 2 million, constituting approximately 4.5 percent of the country’s total population of over 43 million.

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