The Rutherford Institute's


Handbook on Religious Liberty
Around the World



A Brief Historical and Legal Description of Religious Liberty


Sudan became a republic in 1956, and then alternated between military and civilian rule until 1971, when it became a one-party state.1 In 1989, Lt. General Omar Hassan al-Bashir successfully led a military overthrow of Sudan’s democratically elected government and the National Salvation Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) assumed power.2 The RCC banned all political parties and trade unions, abrogated press freedoms, and eventually appointed Bashir as President.3 Like other modern Islamic states however, the real power rested not in the head of state but in the Islamic center of power, which in Sudan is called the National Islamic Front (NIF). The NIF is headed up by Hassan al-Turabi, an Oxford-educated proponent of Islamic extremism known as Islamization.4 The rebel factions in the South, though not completely unified, are mostly represented by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the South Sudan Independence Movement (SSIM). Both the SPLA, the SSIM, and the Sudanese government have been charged with repeated and serious human rights abuses in the waging of their civil war.5 In addition to the Sudanese People’s Armed Forces (SPAF), militant Islamic groups in Sudan include the Islamic militia named the Popular Defense Forces (PDF) and the Islamic Police Force named the Popular Police.6 The Popular police specifically enforce appropriate social behavior and dress codes according to the religious laws of Islam which have been codified, and are currently applied to Sudanese people as the secular/religious law of the land.7

Sudan is the largest country in Africa, and racial and ethnic tensions have exacerbated the poor economic and health conditions of the country. Arab populations dominate and control from the North, where the seat of power for Sudan resides. Due to Arab dominance in the North, Islam is the preeminent religion, anchored in the North and extending to government controlled areas in the South. Although Islam is the majority religion, recent statistics indicate a growing population (currently 20 percent) of Sudanese who claim to be Christian.8

The Black African Sudanese from the South have diverse Christian and tribal animist populations which resist the Islamic cultural, social and political influence from the Arab North. Because of the racial, ethnic and religious differences between the North and the South, Sudan has been in a civil war for over 20 years. The Arab controlled, Islam-promoting government from the North has been meeting armed resistance by the Black, non-Muslim South, and great violence, displacement, and unrest has persisted in the war-torn South. Because Sudan “is a multi-religious state where Islam predominates but where a large minority will not tolerate the universal application of Islamic law,”9 ethnic and religious diversity have ensured a resistance in the form of civil war against the Islamic state of Sudan. The Sudan currently ranks as one of the five worst places in the world on a “human suffering index.”10 A combination of the war in the South and famine have resulted in a steady exodus from the country by the Sudanese. Sudan’s bitter war between Arabs in the North and the Black Sudanese southerners has left an estimated 600,000 dead and displaced 3 million refugees.11 Sudan has also been recognized as one of the most dangerous terrorist regimes in the world because it operates as a training ground for terrorists with as many as 12 training camps within Sudan’s borders.12

Through dress codes, required study of the Qu’ran, and the educational discrimination against non-Arabic-speaking Sudanese students, Islamic fundamentalists via the NIF are advancing the cause of a wholly Islamic nation-state through the schools, colleges, and local governments. This effort at the “Islamization” of Sudan is most dramatic in the South where Sudanese Muslims are in the minority but are able to promote their faith to the exclusion and even persecution of other faiths through government policy and institutions. For example, all non-Muslim judges have been moved from the South to low- level assignments such as traffic court, while most new judges since the revolution in 1989 have strong ties to the NIF, and many of these appointed judges have little if any legal training.13 Non-Muslim civil servants have been replaced in the South and non-Muslim businessmen complain of discrimination and harassment in the awarding of contracts and licenses.14

The Sudanese government denies these accusations, claiming that a tolerance of Christianity and other faiths exists generally at all levels in government and Sudanese society.15 The government, however, restricts reporters from free access to the sites of alleged human rights violations, allowing visits only to those camps and areas carefully pre-selected by the state.16

The Sudan recently held an Inter-Religious Dialogue Conference in which the dominance of Islam in the policies of the government was portrayed as the result of the Sudanese people “opting out” of Christianity and choosing to become Islamic.17 The government also recently revoked the Missionary Act of 1962, ostensibly opening the possibility for greater religious freedom for non-Muslim Sudanese people.18 However, because any new freedoms for non-Muslims have not been elucidated by the government, the benefit of revoking the act may be perfunctory at best.

Because the government continually promotes attempts to “Islamize” all of Sudan society by codifying Islamic religious laws known as Shari’ah, it is difficult to accept their claim of great tolerance for religions other than Islam. By making it a crime to break these Islamic laws, the free exercise of any other religion is non-existent under a strict application of Shari’ah without specific and consistent accommodations and exceptions to Shari’ah for non-Muslims. The result is that Sudanese who are not Muslims must dress, behave, and live according to Islamic law with no exceptions under the harsh application of Shari’ah in modern Sudan. It should be noted that some observers have returned from the Sudan with reports of religious tolerance such as non-Muslim religious services available for prisoners and general amnesty for certain individuals convicted of alcohol violations under Shari’ah law.19 However, Sudanese people have no right to religious freedom if their belief directly conflicts with provisions and requirements of the Shari’ah.


Constitutional Provisions and Legislation Relating to Religion


Although the self-government Statute of 1953 and the Constitution of April 1973 provide for tolerance of religions other than Islam, the “gap between theory and the reality on the ground” results in “institutional injustice . . . in which religion and ethnic groups are disadvantaged.”20 The Constitution of 1986 also promises that “all persons shall enjoy the freedom of faith and the right to perform religious rites within the limits of morality, public order, and health as required by law,”21 but the application of Shari’ah to all Sudanese people results in rendering this provision an empty and hollow one.

The 1991 Criminal Act, which incorporated Shari’ah into the criminal law of Sudan, also made apostasy by Muslims punishable by death.22 The imposition of the Shari’ah includes the enforcement of harsh penalties for alcohol production or consumption, the exacting requirements of modesty for women’s apparel in public places, and the prohibition against certain inter-faith marriages (e.g., a Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but a marriage between a Christian man and a Muslim woman is forbidden.)23

Other impacts of this attempt to enforce Islamic religious law on Sudanese society allow and promote the conversion of the Sudanese from Christianity and other religions to Islam, but makes the proselytizing of Sudanese Muslims a crime punishable by flogging.24

The Missionary Societies Act of 1962, which limited the ability of non-Muslims to practice their religion, has been repealed. Although Christians and other non-Muslims evidently may now worship freely, the government still suppresses religious liberty by denying permits to build any new churches (no new churches have been built in north Sudan since the 1970’s) and by imposing burdensome requirements and licenses on missionary groups as well as requiring hard-to-obtain work permits of foreign missionaries.25 The government also forcibly indoctrinates military trainees, pressures prisoners to convert, and has been alleged to have withheld food, services, and humanitarian aid to non-Muslims unless they convert.26


Recent Reported Cases of Religious Intolerance


MUSLIM INDOCTRINATION CAMPS. A recent visit to the war-torn south by the Puebla Institute, a human rights organization, revealed the practice by the Sudanese government of the snatching of Sudanese Christian children from public places and the detaining of these kidnapped children in government camps.27 The government claims that the camps are designed to provide food, safety, and vocational training to vagrant children, but there are indications otherwise.28 Human rights visitors discovered numerous cases where children, who had been living with their families, were rounded up by the government and forced to live in these camps.29 Testimony from these children indicate that these camps offer military, rather than vocational training. It also appears that pressure and bribing of children to convert to Islam as well as forcing the children to take Muslim names and quote the Koran daily are standard procedures at these camps.30 Stories of these camps have led the Puebla Institute to lodge formal allegations to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that these are cultural cleansing camps where children are indoctrinated into Islam and trained for future recruitment into military service for the Sudanese government.31

Such cultural cleansing seeks to eliminate a cultural group by forcibly stripping these children of their names, language, freedom, families, and religion. In the Sudan, the African Christian and African Animist children may be targets of ongoing cultural cleansing by the Islamic government.


VIOLENCE AGAINST CHRISTIANS. Northern Sudanese also use cultural cleansing to justify the enslavement of the black Christian population that live in southern Sudan.32 In an attempt to “rescu[e] the souls of those southern black people from their ‘false’ religions,” the northerners rape and torture the enslaved Christians.33 The Muslims also use medicine, food, and clothing to persuade people to convert to Islam.34

Roman Catholic Bishop Macram Gassis toured Southern Sudan in January 1994, bringing back reports of horrendous violence committed against Christians by government and Islamic forces.35 Gassis, who had been exiled in 1990 for publicly criticizing the Sudanese government for human rights violations before U.S. Congressional hearings, relayed stories of the mass murder of the elderly, and the burning down of at least 61 churches in districts in South Sudan.36 Other sources confirm reports of Christians being stoned and crucified by Islamic extremists without fear of retribution.37

Assaults on Catholic nuns, priests, and pastors have been reported over the past several years as well.38 Anglican Bishop Peter Elbersh refused to approve the divorce of a recent Muslim convert from her Christian husband on the grounds that the conversion of one spouse is not grounds for divorce in a Christian marriage.39 In retaliation, a friend of the divorce-seeking-wife attempted to frame Bishop Elbersh for the seduction of a young Sudanese girl.40 The judge who tried the Bishop did not allow him to speak one word in his defense and declared that 90 lashes as punishment would be “a lesson to you Christians, under Shari’ah!”41

Other less severe examples of persecution suffered by Christians in an Islam-dominated Sudanese society include claims of discrimination in employment and housing. Black Christian students are unable to secure employment upon graduating with university diplomas while their fellow Muslim students find full-time positions.42 Other Sudanese Christians tell of the impossible task of renting a house in Khartoum because Muslim landlords refuse to rent to them or require 2 years rent in advance.43


REQUIREMENTS THAT CHURCHES REGISTER WITH THE GOVERNMENT. Although in the Fall of 1994, the President and the Sudanese government declared the revocation of the Missionary Act of 1962, which had severely restricted and regulated the free exercise of religion by churches and individual believers in Sudan, Sudanese Christians have been leery of further or increased intolerance by the government.44 Their fear that the Act would be replaced by harsher restrictions and requirements on non-Muslim religious practice seems to be well founded as the Sudanese government is now reviving the Societies Registration Act of 1957, which requires the immediate registering of all churches .45

This revived Act requires all non-governmental organizations to re-register with the Registrar of Societies in the Ministry of Social Planning.46 Under the 1957 Act, the Minister of Social Planning has total discretion to reject any application and cancel any church’s registered status.47 Churches who meet with the Minister’s disapproval could be dissolved within 90 days of refusal to register.48 The Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) has notified the Sudan government of refusals to comply with the new registration requirements.49 To date, the government has made no response, but such churches are undoubtedly in a precarious position. This effort at requiring registration (there is an uncertainty as to whether Muslim mosques and sects are being required to register under the revival of the 1957 Act50) is another example of an Islam-dominated state asserting its power against minority religious practices.



1 John S. Pobee, “Africa’s Search For Religious Human Rights Through Returning To Wells of Living Water.” Speech before the World Council of Churches. (October 8, 1994).

2 U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1994 (United States Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1994): 244.

3 ibid.

4 “Battle-Weary Christians Maintain Resistance.” News Network International Special Report, (April 21, 1995): 2. For a discussion of Islamization see the remainder of this section, and for examples of the real-world application of Islamization as it relates to religious liberties see the section “Religious Cases.”

5 U.S. Department of State (1994): 245.

6 ibid.

7 ibid.

8 “Battle-Weary Christians Maintain Resistance,” 4.

9 P.M. Holt, A History of the Sudan, 4th ed. (New York, 1988): 250.

10 “Battle-Weary Christians Maintain Resistance,” 6.

11 Islamic Assemblies 1994: Sudan, Zwemer Institute, 60. From 1977 to 1993 over 300,000 Sudanese refugees fled to Ethiopia, and on the average 150 Sudanese cross Ethiopia’s western border everyday. See also Refugees, UNCHR, II (1994): 27.

12 “Experts Warn of Security Threat From African Islamist Expansion.” News Network International, 16.

13 U.S. Department of State (1994): 247.

14 ibid, 253.

15 “SUDAN: Response by the Council for International Peoples Friendship.” Letter to the Rutherford Institute, January 16, 1995.

16 The Catholic World Report (April 1995): 42. For a positive report of a visitor to the Sudan, see Lord McNair’s address to the House of Lords, infra note 19. Even though visitors like Lord McNair return with positive reports, one must question what these visitors did not see if the government restricts the sites available to foreign reporters and visitors.

17 The Muslim News (October 28, 1994): 1.

18 See Lord McNair’s address to the House of Lords concerning a recent visit to the Sudan (undated document provided by the government of Sudan).

19 Pobee, 17.

20 “Constitution of 1986,” in Albert P. Blaustein and Gisbert H. Flanz, eds., Constitutions of the Countries of the World (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publication, 1990): 17.

21 U.S. Department of State (1994): 249.

22 Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Toward an Islamic Reformation (Syracuse University Press, 1990): 176.

23 U.S. Department of State (1994): 249; see also Michael Horowitz, “New Intolerance Between Crescent and Cross.” Wall Street Journal, July 5, 1995.

24 ibid.

25 ibid, 251.

26 “An Expendable Army.” Catholic World Report (April 1995): 41-43.

27 ibid.

28 ibid.

29 ibid, 43.

30 ibid, 41-42.

31 Nat Hentoff, “Slavery and the Million Man March.” The Washington Post (November 28, 1995): A17.

32 ibid.

33 National and International Religion Report Vol. 9, No. 25 (November 27, 1995): 6.

34 “Bishop of El-Obeid Hears Tales of Horror on January Tour.” News Network International (January 21, 1994): 15.

35 ibid.

36 The Voice of the Martyrs, Inc. (December 1994): 3. Bishop Gassis also received reports about a Pastor Huran being captured and crucified, while two other men survived crucifixion and had their ears lopped off. “Bishop of El Obeid Hears Tales,” supra note 32, p. 15.

37 “Roman Catholics Condemn Rising Persecution.” News Network International (December 21, 1994): 10.

38 “The Trials of Sudan’s Black Christians.” News Network International (October 26, 1993): 47.

39 ibid.

40 “The Trials of Sudan’s Black Christians,” supra note 36, p. 47.

41 ibid, 45.

42 ibid.

43 “Roman Catholics Condemn Rising Persecution,” supra note 36, p.11.

44 “Islamic Government Orders Churches to Register.” News Network International (April 7, 1995): 6.

45 ibid, 7.

46 ibid.

47 ibid.

48 ibid.

49 ibid.

Other Sources:

 November 26, 1994: Letter from Dr. Mustafa Osman Ismail, Secretary General, Council for International Peoples Friendship Responding on Behalf of the President of Sudan.

December 12, 1994: Letter from Ahmed Suliman, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Embassy of the Republic of Sudan.

January 16, 1995: Dr. Mustafa Osman Ismail, Secretary General, Council for International Peoples Friendship.

May 7, 1995: Dr. Mustafa Osman Ismail, Chairman, Sudanese Inter-Religious Dialogue Association.


Source: Handbook on Religious Liberty Around the World, Pedro C. Moreno, Editor. Charlottesville, VA: The Rutherford Institute. This report is reprinted here by special arrangement with the Rutherford Institute and may not be reproduced or mirrored on another webside without written permission of the Rutherford Institute.

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