YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A proposal for an independent religious freedom commission in Sudan is receiving support from international religious rights groups.

The majority Muslim nation is currently under an interim government after long-time leader Omar al-Bashir was ousted in a coup last year. The al-Bashir regime was responsible for decades of human rights violations of religious and ethnic minorities, and the leader was indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

Since his ouster, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says that Sudan has made some improvements in terms of the degree of freedom enjoyed by religious groups.

After visiting the country in February, the commission’s chair Tony Perkins noted “a spirit of cautious optimism” on religious freedom.

“We are grateful to Prime Minister Hamdok and other members of the country’s bold transitional leadership who met with USCIRF to convey their explicit desire to bring a new era of openness and inclusivity to their country that suffered for 30 years under brutal and autocratic religious repression. At the same time, we understand that the country’s challenges are deeply-rooted, and we urge the leadership to move quickly to turn that optimism into tangible and meaningful reforms for all people across Sudan—such as acting to formally repeal Article 126 of the 1991 penal code, which outlaws apostasy,” he said.

The SPLM-N, an armed group based in Sudan’s predominantly Christian South Kordofan and Blue Nile states which fought against the government of al-Bashir, has now called for the creation of a commission on religious freedoms as part of the ongoing peace process in the country.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide has welcomed the development, with CSW’s Kiri Kankhwende telling Crux that “the commission is important to address the historic and ongoing violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Sudan that affected some of the most marginalized communities in the nation.”

Following are excerpts of Kankhwende’s interview:

Crux: The Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) is pushing for the creation of a Independent Religious Freedom Commission. Why is this commission so important?

The SPLM-N Agar has called for the creation of an Independent Religious Freedom Commission in Sudan that will be mandated as part of the peace agreement. The commission is important to address the historic and ongoing violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Sudan that affected some of the most marginalized communities in the nation. The majorities of Sudanese Christians hail from the Nuba Mountains and have endured violations of the basis of their religion, ethnicity and origin. In the new Sudan it is vital that the systemic violations are identified, addressed and the legal systems used to perpetuate discrimination reformed.

How serious a problem is the persecution of Christians in Sudan?

FoRB violations in Sudan have occurred to varying degrees over the last half-century. Since 2010 and the separation of South Sudan, the persecution of Christian in particular intensified with church land being confiscated by the state, church leaders facing trial for national security crimes and latterly misdemeanors. General harassment of the Christian community, human rights defenders working on FoRB by the intelligence service; harassment of women and interference with the administration of churches and confiscation of private land owned by Christian businessmen.

Underlining all of these violations were two key pillars, a legal system that fundamentally discriminated not only against Christians but the expression of religious thought that did not conform to the government’s view of correct religious practice. Secondly, the 30-year rule of former President Omar al-Bashir espoused Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam that saw the suppression of alternative religious thought and practice as fundamental. Systematic limitations on legitimate Christian practice such as evangelism, ability to import religious texts, restrictions on providing Christian education, healthcare etc. were imposed routinely. This political ideology also led to the harassment of minority Muslim groups such as Shia’s and Quaranists.

Several peace agreements have been signed, but they typically crumble before they are implemented. Why?

There have been several peace agreements signed by the government led by former President Bashir; however nearly all of these agreements have failed in large part due to the actions of Khartoum. During the negotiations and signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, that brokered a peace between the north and what is now modern-day South Sudan, the Bashir government was involved in the war in Darfur that led to Bashir’s arrest warrant for the International Criminal Court for genocide and war crimes.

The lack of political will to fully comply with peace agreements and working to undermine groups that were party to these agreements has led to the breakdown or non-implementation of these peace agreements.

Over the last seven years, a movement emerged from armed groups in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, together with opposition parties had been calling for the Khartoum government to engage in one comprehensive peace agreement where all the issues could be discussed in one process rather than the multiple track processes that al Bashir’s government preferred.

The transitional government that took over in September 2019 it has been possible to bring the armed groups together in one peace process to negotiate and bring an end to the internal conflicts that have plagued Sudan.

What has CSW been doing for the persecuted Christians of Sudan?

CSW stands in solidarity with persecuted Christian in Sudan primarily through advocacy. Through in-depth research and advocacy, we have been able to update policymakers in the UK, EU, U.S. and UN on the situation of human rights in Sudan with a particular emphasis of the status of Christians. Where possible we have supported key partners to travel to UN or UK to meet with diplomats and parliamentarians and testify on the situation in the country.

We also consider prayer to be a cornerstone of our work, often raising the individual cases and urging the church around the world to continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in Sudan.