On June 13, 2019, MEMRI Reform Project director Mansour Al-Hadj testified before the International Religious Freedom Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives for the Briefing on "Protecting Freedom and Democracy in a Transitioning Sudan." The following is his written testimony.
Chairman Bilirakis, Chairman Lipinksi, and members of the International Religious Freedom Caucus,
Thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the timely and important issue of religious persecution in Sudan, and for giving me the opportunity to share with you the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the people of Sudan, who have rebelled peacefully against an authoritarian regime that for 30 years has used religion as a tool to dominate, control, persecute, and wage wars against people because of their religious, political, and ethnic affiliations.
Addressing human rights violations, including religious persecution, has always been part of my professional career, both prior to and since joining the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) to lead its Reform in the Arab and Muslim World Project. As a journalist for Aafaq.org, a leading Arabic-language news website operating from 2007 to 2009 that focused on reform in the Arab world, I reported on dozens of cases of religious persecution in different parts of the Arab world, including Sudan.
Left to right: Dr. Ashraf Abu Affan, Civil Forces Assembly and Sudanese American Physicians Association; Mohamed Abubakr, African Middle Eastern Leadership Project (AMEL); Caucus on International Religious Freedom member Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL); Mansour Al-Hadj.
For example, in 2009, Aafaq highlighted the case of journalist Lubna Al-Hussein and other women convicted of indecency for wearing pants in public who were fined and sentenced to receive 40 lashes. Al-Hussein's case brought wide global condemnation of the Sudanese regime, which enforced extreme Islamic laws that violate human rights.
Indeed, leading human rights organizations from around the world have documented hundreds of cases of religious persecution in Sudan. The followings are selected cases in recent years reported by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF):
Sudanese authorities razed a Sudanese Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) in Khartoum and confiscated its property. Church members say there was no advance warning of the demolition despite a pending judicial decision. In earlier incidents, an evangelical church elder was killed when he protested against government efforts to confiscate church property, and the government announced that no new permits for the construction of new churches would be issued.
Sudanese intelligence (NISS) arrested and allegedly tortured 13 Christians, some of whom were recent converts from Islam; it later released them. Additionally, the NISS acknowledged that it had previously arrested a Christian pastor and confiscated his vehicle, on the grounds that it belonged to a foreign Christian evangelical organization.
In North Darfur, military forces publicly beat women and girls for wearing what it called immodest clothing. Additionally, a Sudanese singer was arrested for indecent dress.
15-year-old Noura Hussein, who had been forced into marriage, was sentenced to death for killing her husband in an attempt to defend herself from marital rape; her sentence was later reduced to five years' imprisonment and payment of "blood money" (diya). In other incidents, an Ethiopian teen who was gang raped by three Sudanese men was convicted of "indecent acts" and fined $900, and two women received 100 lashes each for adultery;
Four Sudanese pastors and a Czech national were arrested in connection with a documentary film on religious freedom in the country; the charges included waging war against the state and espionage, which carry the death sentence.
The Sudanese government bombed Heiban Bible College. Though no one was hurt, two buildings were destroyed. Additionally, a mob estimated at 300 people destroyed the Gerief West Bible School and damaged the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church and other church buildings as police largely stood by inactive.
The people of Sudan have consistently spoken out against the perpetrators of these human rights and expressed their wish to build a tolerant and inclusive society. One aspect of MEMRI's Reform Project is to highlight the voices of those who call for democracy, believe in human rights, and speak out against such regimes as well as against religious extremist groups, individuals, and institutions that encourage violence against minorities and promote hatred and intolerance by providing religious justifications for these actions.
Recently, MEMRI TV translated a rap video by a young man named Aziz that called for an end to Sudan's Islamist regime and stressed that the Sudanese people yearn for change. In the video, which is available on MEMRI In the video which can be viewed on MEMRI.org/tv and the MEMRI TV YouTube channel, Aziz repeated:
"A few words which have been taken from pieces of paper/to express the feelings of people who are dying in a dead country/people whose mental abilities have been disrespected for a long time/ Generation after generation, the people have been yearning for change/In a brief summary, the people are protesting against the regime./Women, men, old, and young…/All have come out singing./Justice, peace, and freedom are our objective."
Last year, MEMRI TV also translated an intense debate in which a young Sudanese woman disputed a leading cleric's justification of female genital mutilation and demanded that it be banned.
Beginning in December 2018, the Sudanese people, from all the country's regions, tribes, ethnicities, and religions, enraged by the poverty, oppression, and atrocities under President Omar Al-Bashir, came together in protests demanding freedom, peace and justice.
They demanded freedom from all forms of oppression used by the regime to silence dissent, divide the people, and maintain power. They demanded peace via conflict resolution and efforts towards harmony, trust, and coexistence. They demanded justice for holding accountable all those who tortured, killed, abused power, or committed war crimes, or was involved in corruption.
The protests were civil and nonviolent – despite the fact that in Sudan most male college students and graduates receive military training, and despite the government's use of excessive use of force, including beatings, tear gas, and live ammunition, and despite the fact that over 130 people were killed in them. The protest leaders and the protesters insisted on adhering to the principle of peaceful protests.
The pro-democracy forces leading the uprising in Sudan share the values and principles of the United States. Therefore, U.S. support for them will certainly advance religious freedom in Sudan.
Additionally, U.S. support for them would revive the Sudanese and South Sudanese peoples' hopes and aspirations for reunification – because should the two peoples decide to reunite, and should reunification become a reality, the regime that enforced inequality, promoted intolerance, and declared holy war against the South Sudan majority Christian population would no longer be in power.
Because of this uprising, for the first time in 30 years there were Christian sermons and Christian choir singing, outside of churches at the sit-in in front of the Armed Forces Headquarters in Khartoum. The sizeable Coptic and Orthodox Christian participation in the uprising has been welcomed and strongly celebrated.
The failure of this revolution and the defeat of these pro-democracy forces in Sudan will be a huge setback for religious freedom in Sudan and the region. The Islamists will be emboldened and aggressive – much as we saw after Iran's Green Revolution was quashed. Women and religious and ethnic minorities will be hardest hit if the Islamists remain in power through the military council, which has received huge support from wealthy nations leading the effort against revolution in the region and acting as destabilizing forces.
To conclude, as stated earlier, the regime of President Omar Al-Bashir, who was ousted in April, has used religion as a tool to divide, oppress, and instigate hatred and intolerance among sectors of the population, leading to religious persecution of minorities and major violations of religious freedom. The current pro-democracy uprising seeks to end all that, and to finally build a country where human rights are respected and protected and where violators are punished.