YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) – an organization that fights to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief – has accused Sudan’s military government of rolling back the progress made under the civilian government since a coup on October 25, 2021.

It’s a concern further highlighted by the ongoing trial of a couple for adultery after conversion to Christianity.

It all started in 2018 when the family of Nada Hamad Koko filed a divorce case against her husband, Hamada Teya Keffi, after discovering that Keffi had converted to Christianity.

By law, a Muslim woman should not get married to a non-Muslim man. The divorce was granted, and Koko went back to stay with her family. Last year however, she returned to her marital home and her family filed a criminal suit, and the couple has now been charged with adultery.

Koko is however dismissing the lawsuit as irrelevant, given that the 2020 law decriminalizes apostasy, yet, and her family deems her conversion to Christianity “unacceptable.”

CSW is now calling for the criminal charges to be dropped and the imposition of legal reform in the country.

Crux spoke to Kiri Kankhwende, Press and Public Affairs Team Leader for CSW, about the issue.

Crux: A Sudanese couple is on trial for adultery after the husband converted to Christianity. How has CSW reacted to this?

We are deeply concerned by the criminal prosecution of Ms Koko and Mr Kaffi. CSW is calling for the criminal charges against them to be dropped and for further legal reform in order to ensure that the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), including the right to change one’s religion or belief, is fully guaranteed to every Sudanese citizen.

What does that tell us about the current legal regime in Sudan?

The tentative reforms of Sudan’s legal landscape under the transitional government included repealing penalties for changing one’s faith (apostasy). However, further reforms are needed to guarantee the full realization of the right to freedom of belief. Since the military coup on October 25, 2021, there has been a concerted effort to roll back the progress made during the Civilian Led Transitional Government (CTLG), including through the appointment of senior civil servants who were close to the former al Bashir regime, and the targeting of human rights defenders working on FoRB. This couple is caught in the middle, left open to prosecution because of the stalled legal reform programme.

In September 2020, Sudan constitutionally became a secular state after Sudan’s transitional government agreed to separate religion from the state, ending 30 years of Islamic rule and Islam as the official state religion in the African nation. Does this trial not negate the gains made in the decriminalization of apostasy laws in Sudan?

Although there is now no penalty for changing one’s faith following the decriminalization of apostasy in July 2020, had Ms. Koko become a Christian while her husband remained a Muslim, their marriage would not have been annulled and the family would not have been separated. There may have been other issues of discrimination such as inheritance, but the family would not have been forced to separate. This highlights the fact that while the decriminalization of apostasy is an important advancement, without further legal reforms to ensure a holistic and rights-based approach to freedom of religion or belief in Sudan, this gain becomes difficult to secure. The progress towards such reforms under the transitional government was important but more is needed to shore up that progress and embed it fully in the constitutional and legal processes of the country.

If you were to assess Sudan’s progress towards inter-religious tolerance, what would that assessment look like?

Inter-religious tolerance is difficult to measure, as it is different across Sudan. For example, in South Kordofan – and the Nuba Mountains in particular – there has been a long history of inter-religious tolerance where members of the same family follow different religious traditions.

During the al Bashir period, violations of freedom of religion or belief were primarily perpetrated by the government and its agencies. However, during the transitional period between September 2019 and October 2021 there was an increase in violations by non-state actors which were inadequately investigated, and perpetrators were rarely brought to justice. This may have in part been due to members of the former al Bashir regime, and the former ruling party, the National Congress Party (NCP), being prohibited from participating in the transitional administration and working to stoke tensions between communities.

Any progress towards inter-religious tolerance needs to be supported by policies, laws and official structures, where the rule of law is guaranteed so that people of different religions and beliefs can engage as equal citizens. If the military succeeds in rolling back the reforms and re-establishing the al Bashir-era policies and institutions, it will be harder to build on the spirit of inter-religious tolerance that was emerging gradually after decades of societal intolerance initiated and sponsored by the former regime.