New government heralds an epoch of change
After popular protests removed President Omar al-Bashir last year, Sudan has been engaged in a three-year transition towards democracry. Teresa Sfeir, who lectures at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, examines the progress made and the significant challenges still to be overcome.
The people of Sudan refused to back down this time. Months of unrelenting demonstrations led to the fall of decades-long President Omar al-Bashir from power in April 2019. A transitional civilian-led government followed in August, with a new cabinet sworn in on 8 September. Hope accompanies this government’s three-year long rule before the 2022 elections, as people look to it for a fresh approach that will be responsive to their needs. Yet, time will show whether this hope will stand.
Tackling the problems
In late September, the new Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who is an experienced economist, appealed to US officials to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism during the UN General Assembly conference. This designation goes back to 1993 over allegations that al-Bashir’s government was supporting terrorist groups. Sudan’s presence on this list prevents the country from receiving much-needed debt relief and financing.
In addition to its efforts to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, the new government seems to be pushing for female active participation across the country. Asma Mohamed Abdallah reportedly became Sudan’s first woman foreign minister. Another three women reportedly serve as ministers in Sudan’s first cabinet since April. Sudan has also launched its first women’s soccer league after al-Bashir’s 30-year rule.
Hamdok’s efforts were met with an economy crippled by debt, underinvestment in infrastructure and a flood crisis in September. The flooding killed scores of people and destroyed more than 100,000 homes. “Because of the floods, we had to stop the children’s ministry at our local church for several weeks as the ministry building, which is made of clay, was in very bad shape,” said ABTS residential student Tathnia while describing her summer ministry back home. Another student, Abukanidy, added, “The gas shortage and the floods in the country had paralysed transport from place to place […] not to mention the bread shortage.”
Moreover, UN Peace Chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix emphasised in October the need to improve the security situation and the economy in Darfur. Otherwise, positive advances made by the Sudanese leadership towards economic and political stability may be lost. Peacemaking with rebels, therefore, has become a priority since it is a mandatory requirement for the country’s removal from the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism.
On 25 January 2020, the transitional government and the rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N), which has been fighting in the areas of the Blue Nile and South Kordofan since 2011, signed a preliminary peace deal that might open the door for ensuing reconciliation. This may be followed by a peace agreement between the government and the Sudan Revolutionary Front in Darfur and Eastern Sudan.
Hamdok is still struggling to root out the tribal conflicts burdening the country, but he has exhibited intelligence in unifying the people toward change. Despite any impending hindrances, the Sudanese people have undoubtedly changed the course of their country.
Implications for Sudan’s Christians
Generally, the Sudanese Church sees the government’s inauguration as a turning point that might ensure its active presence in the country and, possibly, its political representation. Some of our Sudanese graduates shared that the Ministry of Justice is already working on eliminating all laws that restrict freedoms (including that of religious expression) and access to human rights. The Minister of Religious Affairs expressed his willingness to return to the Sudanese Church all its confiscated belongings during the former regime and has already approved the construction and inauguration of various churches across the country. Furthermore, he appointed a Christian as his consultant for Christian affairs.
Other Sudanese graduates, however, were more apprehensive, wondering how long this positive turn of events will really last and whether the 2022 elections will result in a government that restricts religious freedom or whether the remaining al-Bashir loyalists might hinder the country’s transition to democracy (for example, in the light of a mutiny by former members of an armed branch of the dissolved Security Service on 14 January).
In all cases, the Sudanese Church can contribute towards a positive outcome. For instance, the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC) is unifying its efforts to call for freedom of religious expression, freedom to build churches, and representation in government circles, while activists are following-up on the legal status of the Church.
If all this comes to fruition, the church dynamics in Sudan might shift. One cannot tell to what extent that may be; after all, Sudanese Christ followers remain a minority in the country. Whatever its status may be, we pray for the Church’s active presence – that it brings glory to God in all things. We pray that it offers itself in unconditional service of its community. May the Christ followers of Sudan be known as those who turned their country upside down.
This article, originally published on the website of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in November 2019, has been updated by the author and is used with kind permission.