The Sudanese government has cleared a shipment of Bibles believed to have been held in Port Sudan for six years.
The Arabic-language Bibles were released two weeks ago and transported to the capital, Khartoum, after years of appeals by church leaders, a local source told World Watch Monitor.
“Since 2011, government customs officials have delayed the clearing of several shipments of Arabic Bibles via Port Sudan, without explanation,” the source said, adding that it had left Bibles decaying in shipping containers at the port while the approximate 2 million Christians in the country were facing a serious shortage of Bibles and teaching materials.
In October last year a senior church leader, who has overseen the import of hundreds of thousands of Bibles and other pieces of Christian literature to Sudan, told World Watch Monitorthe Bible Society had not received any new Bibles to distribute in Sudan since 2013.
Sudan is fourth on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. It is also a “country of particular concern” for the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan advisory body.
In 2011, Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, said he wanted to adopt a “100 per cent” Islamic constitution after the Christian-majority south had voted to secede. Since then, foreign missionaries have been expelled, churches confiscated or demolished, and leaders harassed and arrested.
The release of the Bibles coincided with the return of property ownership to 19 Sudanese churches.
Ján Figel’, the Special Envoy for Promotion of Freedom of Religion outside the EU, said he welcomed “this good news and reasonable decisions by the Sudanese government”. Figel’ has visited the country several times, raising concerns about the lack of religious freedom.
“We struggled to stop questionable demolition of churches in the country and to revoke a decision on compulsory Sunday [opening] for Christian schools in Khartoum region,” he told World Watch Monitor today.
“I told to Foreign Minister Ghandour, who criticised negative assessment of Sudan abroad: ‘You will surely get better image of Sudan worldwide, when you improve the reality on the ground. One of them is treatment of religious minorities. And he listened carefully,” said Figel’, adding: “We shall see intentions behind new decisions better with time, but I wish this trend would continue.”
The latest developments come as Sudan pushes for the normalisation of bilateral relations with the US and its removal from the US’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Rights groups have called on Washington to “put the brakes on” normalising relations, saying there has been little evidence of progress in the area of human rights.
A USCIRF delegation visited Khartoum and North Darfur in May and heard from stakeholders “that there is no religious freedom” in Sudan.
Meanwhile the rights advocacy organisation CSW expressed “deep concern” about a possible end to the mandate of the UN Independent Expert on the human rights situation in Sudan, Aristide Nononsi.
Although the UN Human Rights Council renewed his mandate by one year in its meeting last week, it also decided that the work of the independent expert would no longer be needed when the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) becomes operational in Sudan.
In his 2017-2018 report, Nononsi had detailed human rights violations including the demolition of churches and CSW’s chief executive, Mervyn Thomas said “the situation on the ground is serious enough to warrant regular attention from the HRC until there are sustained improvements in the human rights situation”.