In this season of celebration and contemplation, we are publishing a series of articles about Christians who are imprisoned and in some cases threatened with death because of their beliefs. Such religious persecution is not limited to Christians. Indeed the most intense fury of zealots like those of the so-called Islamic State is directed against fellow Muslims deemed heretical. But Christians find themselves targeted not only for their faith, they are treated as symbols of the West, even if their history in a country like Egypt goes back millennia. Thus ISIS hopes attacks like the suicide bombing of a Coptic cathedral in Cairo earlier this month will help draw clear battle lines between Islam and what it calls “crusaders”—the soldiers who bear the cross. A few cases like that of Asia Bibi, a mother of five now serving her seventh consecutive Christmas in jail in Pakistan on blasphemy charges, have drawn international attention. But many others have not. As advocacy groups have made clear, Christians are under pressure from non-Muslim Mexico to non-Muslim China, but they face the most ferocious persecution in the Muslim Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Africa.
For more than 365 days, two Sudanese pastors, a Czech aid worker, and a Sudanese civil rights activist have seen their loved ones only at court sessions and only in passing, says the Rev. Kuwa Shamal, one of the detained pastors who spoke to Nuba Reports by phone from prison.
“We are considered to be spies,” said Shamal, who shares a cell at Al Huda Prison in Omdurman with fellow pastor Hassan Abdelrahim. Both are from Sudan’s Nuba Mountains region of South Kordofan State, where civil war has raged for the last five years.
The four suspects face seven separate charges including espionage, waging war against the state, and provoking hatred among sects. Yet human rights observers and religious leaders say the case is baseless—just the latest example of growing persecution of Christians in the Islamic country since the 2011 secession of South Sudan.
“They don’t have any political relationships, their work is religious and they are not supposed to be arrested for simply spreading the gospel,” said Pastor Emmanuel Ofendi, who runs the Cush Theological College in the Nuba Mountains. “We send our message to the whole world of what is happening—to release these men. They have done nothing wrong.”
Sudanese national security in December 2015 arrested the two pastors and civil rights activist Abdelmoneim Abdelmoula at home. Petr Jasek, an aid worker from the Czech Republic, was on his way out of the country when authorities detained him at Khartoum International Airport.
The court case began in August, more than eight months after the men were first detained. According to defense lawyer Muhanad Nur, the arrest stems from state suspicions that they are trying to encourage Muslims to convert to Christianity and for publicly speaking out against the ill treatment of Christians in Sudan.
During the last hearing at the Khartoum Centre Court on Dec. 19, national security officer Sayed Abdel-Rahman claimed the group had aired radio and online YouTube videos by two “hostile foreign organizations” and that Jasek was a member of one of these organizations. One of the YouTube videos alleged that the Sudan government had killed Muslim converts to Christianity.
In October, the state prosecutor presented video footage and photographs taken from Jasek’s laptop as evidence. The prosecutor’s case included footage of the Nuba Mountains and the four suspects in Khartoum North assisting a student, Ali Omer, as he suffers from skin burns from a teargas bomb during a 2013 university protest. Abdelmoula, an engineer and activist from Darfur, is Omer’s brother and sought help from the two pastors and Jasek. The trio are accused of helping Omer with his costly medical bills after the incident.
Shamal suspects authorities had wished to arrest the Darfur activist for some time—Abdelmoula’s collaboration with the pastors and Jasek fulfilled this desire.
Authorities also arrested Omer last December, imprisoned him for six months and questioned him repeatedly about the source of the money used to cover his medical treatment, the human rights organization Amnesty International reported.
Jasek, with over 20 years of medical experience, had assisted the Christian aid organization Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) on different occasions, VOM spokesman Todd Nettleton said. He has given medical assistance to persecuted Christians in Sudan and Nigeria, according to the spokesman.
The two indicted pastors suspect their participation in a Christian conference in October 2015 based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, may have triggered their arrest.
“There were 10 pastors from Sudan who attended the conference to discuss the situation of Christians in Khartoum after secession of South Sudan,” Shamal explained from prison. Abdelmoula presented a paper on the oppression of Christians in Sudan.
The current trial appears at loggerheads with the October conclusions of the National Dialogue, a state-led peace initiative ostensibly designed to end Sudan’s internal conflicts. The conference attendants, including government and some opposition parties, concluded the event by issuing a National Document that makes at least four references calling for religious diversity, the freedom of worship, and to end religious discrimination in Sudan.
Both pastors can speak from past experience about state-led targeting of Christians and Christian institutions. In June 2014, the state demolished Shamal’s church, the Sudanese Church of Christ in Thiba Al Ahamida, Khartoum North, claiming the land was reserved for a private hospital.
Land authorities rejected ownership documents he presented, including receipts of fees paid for the church over 30 years ago. Incredibly, authorities visited him on a Sunday before they leveled the church, requesting that he sign a document calling for the church’s demolition.
“I refused to sign the paper,” Shamal said over the phone from prison. “How can someone come to us asking us to demolish our own church?”
The following day vehicles and a bulldozer accompanied by dozens of police, military, and security personnel came and tore the building down. Now, the 400-odd parishioners worship in the open air despite repeated requests to many government ministries for permission to rebuild their church.
The Sudan government has demolished at least six churches since 2011, according to Morningstar News, a faith-based news service that monitors Christian persecution. In the last few months, authorities have demolished a popular Christian school serving Christian and Muslim students alike and detained the school staff twice for resisting their school’s destruction.
The targeting of churches and Christians ratcheted up after South Sudan gained independence in 2011. Once the predominantly Christian South Sudanese populace seceded, considerable institutional support previously used to defend Christians against state authorities diminished in Sudan.
In April 2013, the minister of Guidance and Endowments announced that no new licenses would be granted for building new churches in Sudan, citing a decrease in the South Sudanese population. Two years later, government officials stiffened penalties for apostasy and blasphemy.
And more churches are sure to face challenges in the future. In August, the Chief of Office for the Khartoum State Ministry of Planning rejected a request from the Sudanese legal firm, the Justice Centre for Advocacy and Legal Advice, calling for an end to state-sanctioned church demolitions in Khartoum State. Instead, the state ministry issued a letter ordering four churches to be demolished in Khartoum. The officer accused the four churches, based in Al-Baraka, Al-Bashir, Arta Kamul and Dar el Salaam Jedidah of being built too close to “community areas.”
While these events take place, Pastors Shamal and Abdelrahim continue to be awakend at 5 a.m., surviving on two meals of beans per day, and worry over their respective families outside. Shamal is especially worried over their children who are no longer receiving any support from them.
The Nuba pastors, along with Jasek, spend their days teaching in the prison church—all the while suffering frequent verbal abuse by the prison staff, Shamal said.
The Nuba community, where it is not uncommon to find inter-faith families living together, has largely denounced the four men’s continued incarceration. A court hearing scheduled on November 14, for instance, was postponed after a large group of the four suspects’ supporters attempted to attend the hearing.
Shamal still manages to remain hopeful and prays for their release and forgives those who arrested them.
“We know it is not out of the will of God that we are in prison,” Shamal said from behind its walls, “but God knows that we are in prison.”