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One Year of Progress Advancing Religious Freedom in Sudan

This op-ed originally appeared in the Washington Examiner, on August 13, 2020.

By USCIRF Vice Chairs Tony Perkins and Anurima Bhargava

Earlier this year, we joined hundreds gathered under a large tent outside of Khartoum, Sudan for Sunday mass. We served as a brief distraction for the curious eyes of children, who quickly returned to gently entertaining and minding the youngest among them.

That afternoon, women elders shared stories of leading their fellow tea-sellers and teachers, as well as their daughters and granddaughters, to rise up against Omar Al-Bashir’s regime. They came from various religious backgrounds, yet together they had built a community and secured the freedom to stand with their heads unbowed and uncovered.

Later that day, we met with an Education Ministry official about the changes to the school curriculum that had long promoted the Islamist regime. 

Nothing that we encountered that Sunday would have been possible just a year ago.

For 30 years, the former regime led by Omar Al-Bashir systematically repressed religious freedom by applying Shari’a-based provisions on Muslims and non-Muslims alike. As just one heinous example, Muslim converts were punished by death. The application of these provisions forced many non-Muslim religious minorities to either convert to the state imposed-version of Sunni Islam, or flee the country.  

One year after its formation, Sudan’s transitional government has made remarkable progress in advancing religious freedom and protections for previously disenfranchised groups—particularly religious minorities and women and girls. Notably, the transitional government has taken concrete steps to repeal laws and regulations that restricted individual freedoms under the previous regime.

The transitional government repealed the repressive Public Order Law just three months after taking office. In April 2020, the government criminalized the dehumanizing practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Last month, the transitional government adopted the Fundamental Rights and Freedoms Act—which repealed the apostasy law, ended flogging, and abolished the guardianship law that required women to obtain permission from a male guardian to be able to travel abroad. The government also allowed non-Muslims to buy, sell, and drink alcohol.

These important legal changes have done more than just expand religious freedom. They kickstarted the much-needed process of building rapport between the new government and the Sudanese people of all walks of life.

Sudan’s transitional government has demonstrated a new commitment to transparency, accountability, and inclusion of historically marginalized groups. When cabinet members of the transitional government were sworn in last year, several ministers shared their plans of action publicly for the first time. This government appointed women in high-level government positions, including two women—one Muslim and one Christian—as members of the Sovereign Council, charged with overseeing the transitional period. To honor and respect its Christian citizens, the government also designated December 25 as a national holiday in celebration of Christmas.

Throughout the past two decades, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) had recommended that the State Department designate Sudan as a "country of particular concern" (CPC), a category under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) for governments guilty of "systematic, ongoing, and egregious" violations of religious freedom committed by Bashir’s government. That changed with our 2020 Annual Report. In recognition of this historic progress made by the transitional government, we now recommend Sudan for the State Department's Special Watch List (SWL), an improvement from the CPC black list.

However, there is still work to be done to safeguard and promote freedom of religion or belief for all Sudanese.

Further legal reforms are required to fully disentangle the Bashir regime’s repressive laws and policies. A pivotal step is the complete repeal of the country’s blasphemy law. While the recent Fundamental Rights and Freedoms Act removed the punishment of flogging, blasphemy is still criminalized and carries with it a punishment of up to six months imprisonment.

In addition to making changes on the books, the transitional government must work to ensure wide, immediate, and effective implementation of reforms—which will require overcoming domestic discontent. A recent demonstration on June 30th showed a growing frustration with the slow speed of progress in the country. At the same time, ultra-conservative religious groups have raised concern that certain changes contradict Islamic teachings.

Changes in the legislative framework must be complemented by comprehensive reform of institutions like the judiciary and educational system. For example, the Ministry of Education is working on implementing comprehensive curricula reform to replace intolerant content in textbooks issued by the former regime with new materials that accompany improved teacher training. These important revisions in the educational system will be essential in promoting inclusivity and religious freedom for the next generation of Sudanese.

Therefore, we encourage the U.S. government to provide economic assistance and technical support necessary for these important legal and educational reforms.

While challenges remain, this has been a remarkable year for Sudan. Given these significant strides, the United States and the international community must continue to support Sudan in achieving a stable and lasting transition that will foster a social and political environment conducive to religious freedom for all Sudanese citizens.

 

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