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Sudanese Pastors Pressured to ‘Inform’ or Stand Trial

This article was first published by World Watch Monitor on December 16, 2016.

sudan-map

Forty-eight year old father of three Revd Yamane Abraha received an ultimatum in Khartoum following a trip to Ethiopia in the fall of 2015.

“(Sudanese government) security threatened me, saying I would have to appear in court either as a witness, or an accused,” the Evangelical Baptist Church of Khartoum pastor told WWM. “But my father was sick, so unlike others I couldn’t escape.”

Abraha was one of several Sudanese Christians gathered abroad to pray for their nation. Among them were Revd Hassan Abduraheem Kodi Taour and Revd Kuwa Shamal, Sudan Church of Christ pastors from the Nuba Mountains region.

Also attending was Czech Christian aid worker Petr Jašek. According to Middle East Concern, these three had helped facilitate financial assistance to pay for the medical treatment of a Darfurian university student who had suffered burn wounds when government security attacked a campus demonstration in Omdurman, north of the capital Khartoum.

Sudanese at the meeting suspected there were spies around their Addis Ababa hotel. Then shortly after their return to Khartoum, the police arrested Taour, Shamal and Jašek, in December 2015. They have now been in detention for a year. Detained along with them is Abdulmonem Abdumawla, also from Darfur, who helped facilitate the medical treatment for the student.

The four are charged with waging war against the Sudanese state, espionage, conspiracy to carry out criminal acts, and undermining the authority of the state through violence. Trial proceedings finally begun in August have been postponed repeatedly in recent months. They could face the death penalty.

Delayed escape

Abraha was not arrested until three months after his colleagues, on 13 March, and then held for only one day. Security ordered him to report back daily, and on 24 March told him he would have to appear in court in the role of his choice: testify against the others, or be charged along with them.

On 26 March his father died.

Abraha gathered his family and traveled eight hours east by bus to bury him in their hometown of Kassala, on the border with Eritrea. And there he dropped off the radar, ditched his cell phone, and waited.

Two weeks later he returned to Khartoum and set his plan in motion. Nervously he checked his surroundings before going to buy a ticket to Egypt.

With his wife he exchanged notes on paper serviettes, which they wet and discarded when read. Discreetly they packed their children’s belongings, lest they tip off authorities at school.

Abraha then checked with a friendly security officer that his name was not on a watch list. And on 20 April, he told his children they would have a family picnic near the airport. Relatives—and kids—were surprised to learn they were saying ‘goodbye’.

In Egypt, Abraha is now involved in training for discipleship and church planting, and supervises 15 house churches among Sudanese refugees.

Over 31,000 Sudanese in Egypt are registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees, according to its August 2016 report. Unofficial estimates can exceed well over one million.

Most have fled the ongoing violence in Darfur and the southern regions of Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains bordering South Sudan.

Recurring pattern

But Abraha’s story is not unique.

Barnaba Timothous, who fled to Egypt three years earlier, had also been pressed to testify against Christian colleagues. Doing student campus ministry, he was accused of taking foreign money.

“I was told that if I would cooperate nothing would happen to me,” he told WWM. “But if not, nothing would protect me from them.”

Some people criticized him for his decision to leave. He did so quickly, taking one bag and telling no one in his family. And though he stated he was not personally involved in ministry among Muslims, he refused to betray those he knew.

“I will not be involved in issues that hurt the body of Christ and bring suffering to innocent people, just because they follow Christ as savior,” he said.

“The Islamic government of Sudan is persecuting the leaders of churches and ministries. And now our students no longer trust each other, fearful someone might report them.”

Timothous, who has since been joined by his mother and sister, is now working amongst students at several university campuses in Egypt.

WWM has spoken with other Christian leaders who tell similar stories.

Excuse for crackdown

”The [Sudan] government wants sharia and is cracking down on the church,” said Kamal Fahmy, head of the religious freedom advocacy group Set My People Free.

He recalled President Omar al-Bashir’s threat, on the eve of South Sudan independence in 2011, to make Sudan a fully Islamic state, the removal of foreign NGOs thereafter, and the expulsion of South Sudanese in 2013.

“Authorities felt Pastors Hassan and Kuwa were shaming them, bringing a bad report,” Fahmy told WWM.

“In the rebel areas the church is doing humanitarian work and is not involved in the conflict, but it does expose the atrocities the Sudanese government is committing.

“It will find any excuse to accuse them.”

Pastors have been arrested, churches have been destroyed, and land has been confiscated, according to the US State Department’s 2015 Report on International Religious Freedom.

And on 6 Oct the European Parliament passed a resolution against Sudan, specifically naming the four detainees.

Noting the EU partnership with Sudan toward ‘better migration management’, the resolution ‘reaffirms that freedom of religion, conscience or belief is a universal human right that needs to be protected everywhere and for everyone … especially in the case of apostasy.’

But in January 2015, Sudan actually expanded its apostasy laws to include criticism of the Prophet Mohammad’s wives or early companions.

Fahmy, who recently penned an open letter to the UN with the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe, links an oppressive religious climate to development issues, which he says “assaults the core of human nature”.

“Apostasy laws … have negative social and political consequences everywhere they are in force,” he wrote. “They create instability and inspire violence.”

“Without freedom to change beliefs there is no religious freedom,’” he told WWM. “Going to paradise is not compulsory.”

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A Conversation with al-Gama’a al-Islamiya’s Hani Nour Eddin – Part Two, Non-Violence

Hany Nour Eddin 1

For Part One of this conversation, discussing Hani Nour Eddin’s background, please click here. For the full interview on Middle East Institute, please click here. Part Two explores Nour Eddin’s views on violence, and here is an excerpt from the published interview:

Al-Gama`a al-Islamiya is committed to nonviolence and has apologized for its past. In fact, you organized a demonstration recently to condemn political violence. 

We saw that others had taken over the streets and were now using them to express their views. People might thinkthat they are the voice of Egypt. We wanted to say that the Egyptian street is not about violence and sexual harassment. Unfortunately, beautiful Tahrir Square has lost its symbolism. So we [demonstrated in] another place to avoid any contact with them. Our demonstration invited all to come and express their opinions, whether for or against the Islamist project, but with a commitment to nonviolence.

I noticed many of the speeches and chants were very Islamic, and quite severe. Instead of “no to violence,” the demonstration became about “yes to political Islam.” 

Our demonstrations often take the color of the people who attend. Maybe this is because of our weakness in usingthe media; we use a strident voice to make our point and show we are strong. We are Islamists, and we do not accept separating religion from anything else, and the street welcomes this. And so they chant, “Egypt will remain Islamic!”

The protest also honored Khaled al-Islambouli [Sadat’s assassin].

Islambouli is considered one of the symbols of al-Gama`a al-Islamiya when it was in a period of resistance to the regime. We all saw Sadat as a dictator, especially in his last years when he used oppression and closed mosques. Islambouli has an honored place among us.

Even if you now confess that what he did was wrong.

If we could go back in history and reevaluate, perhaps we would not have chosen the path of violence. But what happened was necessary due to the situation. Unfortunately, the circumstances demanded it.

But this is the test of your principles. If nonviolence is a principle—not a means, not a strategy—you must commit to it. 

Yes, this is right. It is a principle.

Unfortunately, for space issues Middle East Institute had to cut the conclusion, which seeks to test their commitment to non-violence through recent domestic and international examples. This part is posted here:

A few weeks earlier than your ‘No to Political Violence’ protest, Mohamed al-Zawahiri demonstrated at the French Embassy in Cairo against their military intervention in Mali. There, Ezzet al-Salamony, a leader in GI, spoke saying, “Why are they fighting us in our lands? It is we who should be fighting them in our lands!”

There are two issues here: One, Islamist support for the rebels in Mali, and two, the statement of Salamony itself. Do these violate your non-violent commitment?

I see what you’re saying. From what I know GI has abandoned violence and we will not return to it. We also agree we will not interfere in the politics of other nations. But as for that statement, he is the one responsible for it, and must justify himself.

Ok, but tell us about Mali, especially before the French intervention. Do you support the rebels from the north?

To a degree, but we do not have complete information about the nature of the Mali jihadists. Their primary slogan is the application of sharia law and building an Islamic state on the basis of it. Their situation is different; to what extent is there democracy or other means of change? We don’t know.

But we support the idea of an Islamic entity if it is true they are committed to Islam. At times some people will raise the banner of Islam but transgress it in how they behave. But yes, if they live as Muslims and seek to apply the sharia, yes, we support them.

But for the real situation between them and the Malian government, we don’t know.

But should you not condemn their jihad, as it is violent? Even if it is true the political system has not opened up the way it has in Egypt?

Again, we can’t evaluate their experience in jihad because we don’t know enough.

But you don’t know? It is clear to the world their rebellion is armed. They were marching on the Malian capital.

In the beginning it was not like this. They were a number of jihadi groups that gathered together and the government confronted them, but they began expanding their territory and announced themselves as a political entity.

But even this, expanding their territory in the north was at the expense of the legitimacy of the government. What gave them the right to seek autonomy or declare independence?

Yes, but their situation is different from that of Egypt.

But this is the point, we’re talking about a principle. In Egypt there is no necessity for violence – you have won by votes. But there the Islamist is in a position of weakness. Perhaps he is even suffering pressure. Is he allowed to resist violently?

(Laughing) I cannot condemn them before I know the circumstances which drove them to violence. Maybe it is violence in response to a greater violence upon them. What if my life or existence is threatened and there is no other way? But rebelling against a leader by forming militias? No, we must expend all peaceful and preaching means first, before resorting to violence.

Before? But your ‘Revisions’ were a complete condemnation.

The issue of jihad in Islam is legitimate, but it is not something to begin with. In our ‘Revisions’ we defined that jihad has stipulations that prevent it from resulting in even greater harm upon the people, the sharia, and the country. The jurisprudence in measuring jihad in Mali is different than the measure in Egypt.

But how can their situation be seen as worse than what you experienced here? There was a tyrant in Egypt, he oppressed you, he put you in prison, he killed you. He distorted the sharia and laughed about it. And even under all this pressure you condemned your own violent confrontation.

Because it did not result in any fruit.

So forgive me if this isn’t the right word, but does this show your condemnation of violence was opportunistic? You made a deduction violence is not working, so you give it up. You still believe in violence as a possible means of change.  

No, in the reality in which we live it is not a means of change.

But maybe it is in Mali?

It depends on their circumstances; we cannot judge them.

So your commitment to violence…

We commit ourselves. We cannot compel others to be so committed.

So it is not a general interpretation of Islam. It is just your situation?

Jihad is legitimate in Islam; no one can deny this. The question is if you are engaged in it legitimately according to its stipulations.

So what are the domestic stipulations for jihad? The one in Mali is against the ruler.

Will our scholars permit their action? I don’t know. It depends on the type of ruler; it depends on the struggle between him and the various Islamic groups. I don’t have enough information to say.

Ok. Sudan.

Our party sent a delegation to Sudan shortly after it was created, to establish relations. We consider Sudan to be deeply important to Egypt, economically, socially.

What about the status of President Bashir as an international criminal?

No, there are other factors at play in these accusations. We don’t believe the government is complicated in any criminality.

So in a sentence, how do you understand what is happening in Darfur?

It began as a local tribal conflict, and then the government intervened. After that it became somewhat of a separatist movement. It was necessary for the state to preserve its authority.

As in Mali?

(Laughing) For example.

Please click here to read the whole article at Middle East Institute.