Two Presbyterians pastors imprisoned for their faith in the Republic of Sudan for nearly eight months have been released.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s office of World Mission received a communication earlier today from the Rev. Philip Akway Obang, general secretary of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC), confirming the release of the Rev. Yat Michael and the Rev. Peter Yen Reith of the SSPEC.
Michael was detained by Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) on Dec. 14, 2014, at the end of a service at Bahri Evangelical Church in Khartoum. On Jan. 11, 2015, Reith was detained by the NISS after attending a prayer meeting in Khartoum. On May 4, 2015, a range of charges were filed against the pastors, some that could have resulted in life in prison or the death penalty if they had been convicted.
“We thank God for their release and for all the PC(USA) congregations that prayed for them,” Obang says.
Obang expressed great appreciation for the PC(USA) initiatives and for the partnership between SSPEC and PC(USA). He says advocacy efforts of Christians around the world have been very effective at bringing international attention to the situation of pastors Michael and Reith. The U.S. Embassy has been present at the hearings, which he believes provided helpful pressure on the Sudanese government.
“This is not ‘something new’ for our church,” says the Rev. Tut Kony, pastor of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. “Almost all pastors have gone to jail under the government of Sudan. We have been stoned and beaten. This is their habit to pull down the church. We are not surprised. This is the way they deal with the church.”
During the pastors’ imprisonment, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and Heath Rada, moderator of the 221st General Assembly (2014), wrote to Ambassador Donald Booth, U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, to urge him to pursue diplomatic channels to learn more about the detainment of the pastors and to ensure their human and civil rights were respected fully. Letters also were sent to President Barak Obama and to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), to draw urgent attention to the pastors’ human and civil rights, as well as the rights of their attorneys. Presbyterians have been involved in the Amnesty International campaign to bring this matter to the attention of Sudanese authorities.
“The South Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church has been an inspiration to PC(USA),” says the Rev. Debbie Brakksma, Africa area coordinator, Presbyterian World Mission. “They have continued to faithfully proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed in an extremely difficult context. We thank God for the many Presbyterians who have prayed for the release of these two pastors and for how they have accompanied their prayers with action through various advocacy efforts.”
“This situation will make believers strong in faith. Even though there are difficult times they know God is with them. When one of the believers, a servant of God, is arrested they will know that the Gospel is reaching out,” Obang says. “The international community needs to talk to the government of Sudan to remind them that their country is for all citizens of Sudan. The international community must talk to them so that they know that their country is not for [people of] one religion. Muslims and Christians and people with no religion must live together in peace.”
Since December 2014, the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness, the PC(USA) Ministry at the United Nations, the Office of the General Assembly, and Presbyterian World Mission have advocated in many ways—prayers, calls, letters, emails and social media—for the release of pastors Michael and Reith. These advocates celebrate the safe release of these pastors, while also asking for continued prayers for the church in Sudan.
Obang says it is important to continue to pray for unity of the Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church (based in Khartoum), for peace to come to South Sudan and for the many SSPEC pastors who have been displaced by the fighting in South Sudan. Many of the displaced are currently living in refugee camps in Khartoum, Juba and other locations. “Pray God can assist and sustain them,” Obang says.
Michael and his wife, Mary, have two children. Reith and his wife, Martha, have a young daughter. Reith is in charge of the SSPEC orphan center in Bor, South Sudan.