Police in Darfur Region, Sudan have arrested four Christians under a law against apostasy that was annulled two years ago, according to local reports.
Police on June 28 arrested the Christians from the Sudanes Baptist Church in Zalingei, in western Sudan’s Central Darfur state, on charges of apostasy, detaining them until their release on bail on Tuesday (July 5), according to local media outlet Sudania 24.
The Christian converts from Islam – Bader el Dean Haroon Abdel Jabaar, his brother Mohammad Haroon Abdel Jabaar, Tariq Adam Abdalla and Morthada Ismail – had also been arrested on June 22 and released the same day.
Area Christians said they were arrested over allegations of apostasy under Article 126 of Sudan’s 1991 criminal code. In July 2020 the transitional government that took effect in September 2019 decriminalized apostasy, which had been punishable by death. Sudan’s 2020 Fundamental Rights and Freedoms Act prohibits the labeling of any group as “infidels” (takfir), according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
The 2020 Act also repealed other Islamic-based articles of the 1991 criminal code, including public flogging as a punishment and prohibitions against drinking alcohol. Although Sudan has taken some steps to reform laws that violate religious rights, most current statutes are still based on Islamic law, Christian leaders say.
Human rights activists said prosecutors have mistakenly used a repealed article of the criminal code against the four Christians.
The Christians were scheduled to appear in court this week. Police also reportedly confiscated their Bibles and a sound system belonging to the church.
Officers reportedly ordered the Christians to leave the area. The arrested men refused but have since gone into hiding. Muslim extremists in the area have called for their death, one of the arrested Christians said.
Following two years of advances in religious freedom in Sudan after the end of the Islamist dictatorship under Omar al-Bashir in 2019, the specter of state-sponsored persecution returned with a military coup on Oct. 25, 2021.
After Bashir was ousted from 30 years of power in April 2019, the transitional civilian-military government managed to undo some sharia (Islamic law) provisions. It outlawed the labeling of any religious group “infidels” and thus effectively rescinded apostasy laws that made leaving Islam punishable by death.
With the Oct. 25 coup, Christians in Sudan fear the return of the most repressive and harsh aspects of Islamic law. Abdalla Hamdok, who had led a transitional government as prime minister starting in September 2019, was detained under house arrest for nearly a month before he was released and reinstated in a tenuous power-sharing agreement in November.
Hamdock had been faced with rooting out longstanding corruption and an Islamist “deep state” from Bashir’s regime – the same deep state that is suspected of rooting out the transitional government in the Oct. 25 coup.
Persecution of Christians by non-state actors continued before and after the coup. In Open Doors’ 2022 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, Sudan remained at No. 13, where it ranked the previous year, as attacks by non-state actors continued and religious freedom reforms at the national level were not enacted locally.
Sudan had dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in six years when it first ranked No. 13 in the 2021 World Watch List. The U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report states that conditions have improved somewhat with the decriminalization of apostasy and a halt to demolition of churches, but that conservative Islam still dominates society; Christians face discrimination, including problems in obtaining licenses for constructing church buildings.
The U.S. State Department in 2019 removed Sudan from the list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) that engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom” and upgraded it to a watch list. The State Department removed Sudan from the Special Watch List in December 2020. Sudan had previously been designated as a CPC from 1999 to 2018.
The Christian population of Sudan is estimated at 2 million, or 4.5 percent of the total population of more than 43 million.