As Christians in South Sudan mark one month after independence, churches in the Muslim north are facing pressure from government officials and members of the public who are demanding their closure.
The development is causing some church leaders to close schools and congregations and consider moving to the south, but even those actions are difficult because they see themselves as northern Christians.
“Some churches are being left empty and those in the outskirts without proper documentation are being forced to close. Some individual government leaders are going there and telling pastors to close them down,” said the Rev. Ramadan Chan Liol, general secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches, in a telephone interview.
South Sudan became an independent state on July 9, creating hope for many Christians, especially in the north, where they were never allowed full freedom to operate. But they are now facing increased threats from individual groups, according to Chan, a Baptist.
“The groups have collected names of pastors and are warning them against conducting church services on Sundays or they would be killed,” said the leader of the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox church grouping.
He said that renewal of identity cards and other important documents for the leaders and the south Sudanese were being denied. “The people are not being allowed to take property like refrigerators and cookers. Money is also being taken away by the soldiers at the border points,” he said.
Government officials in Khartoum are generally barred from speaking with the press and an official at the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi said he had no knowledge of any harassment.
Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Adwok, the Archdiocese of Khartoum auxiliary, said church schools were considering closing since church based charities had reduced funding after most people travelled to the south. “Many parents who are displaced persons are not able to raise the required school fees given their little income. So the church is finding it difficult to continue running the schools without enough resources,” said Adwok.
President Omer Hassan al-Bashir declared Sudan would embrace Sharia and Islam as the official state religion after the breakaway. On Aug. 7, Qutbi al-Mahdi, the political bureau officer of the ruling National Congress Party told the Sudan Tribune that the decrees would soon be issued.
In the war-torn South Kordofan region, the Anglican cathedral and offices in Kadugli have been ransacked and looted, according to Bishop Andudu Adam Elnail of the Kadugli Episcopal Diocese.
“I am told that armed men went house to house, searching for me, calling my name,” Elnail told the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on Africa on Aug. 4 in Washington DC. He narrated how a member of his congregation had witnessed the Sudan Armed Forces and northern militia groups burying 100 or more dead bodies in mass graves in Kadugli.
“If I were not here today to testify before you, I do not know whether I would be in a mass grave in Kadugli now,” he said. Elnail said he has received frequent reports of the bombing of civilians in the Nuba Mountains by the Sudan air force. He expressed the people’s fears that a state-sponsored ethnic cleansing campaign was unfolding there.