I went with a colleague to Sudan last Saturday for a series of meetings and a day conference on ‘freedom of religion’ in Khartoum. Originally, this was instigated by the British Embassy, but then the US and Canadian embassies got involved. The Sudan government wanted to address the theme similarly, so it was all subsumed into one event last Tuesday.

The various meetings (which for me included a roundtable with diplomats, lawyers, academics and religious leaders and a dinner at the embassy with a wider group, including young civil rights people with interesting perspectives on the current protests) were characterised by frank and open conversation. Although running the schedule and chairing the conference itself, there was no restriction on open speech and honest exchange of views. I later did an hour-long television interview (a Sudanese equivalent of the BBC’s Hardtalk) in which the argument was robust as well as comprehensive.

Sudanese newspapers have offered an interesting interpretation of what I said at the conference – much of it news to me. But, they also picked up on some key points. For my address at the beginning of the day I did not have a final script. In fact, as usual when wanting to keep some flexibility in knowing how to address whom (for example, I didn’t know until I got there that the audience would include ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, civil servants, religious leaders, lawyers, academics, police and military representatives), I just had a few notes of key points to make. How to make them – and what language to use – was a matter for judgement at the moment itself.

I reconstructed my speech, not as actually delivered, but in terms of the key points made. Here it is:

I am the Bishop of Leeds in the North of England, but I also sit in the House of Lords (the upper house of the British Parliament). Questions of religious freedom – fundamental to matters of human rights – belong within the political discourse. Politics and religion cannot be separated: politics has to do with the common good – our common life together in a society of which we are equal members – and social order; religion has to do with how people live together and what motivates both individual and corporate behaviour. So, religion is political and politics cannot ignore religion. In secular states religion is too often seen as an add-on to ‘real life’ – a sort of private enterprise that sits alongside real life and social order rather than being integral to them. But, there is no neutrality.

Sudan, then, is not unique in facing questions of how in practice to guarantee freedom of religion, and the Sudanese voice in this challenging area should be heard alongside others. But, today we are focusing on the particular challenges in Sudan.

As I have said in relation to media in the UK, you can’t understand the world if you don’t understand religion. And if I am not free to change or drop my religion, then I am not free at all.

I also belong to an international parliamentary network on freedom of religion or belief. Sudan is not the only country facing challenges in relation to freedom of religion. But, we are here to address the questions particular to the Sudan. This is my third visit to Sudan – a country with whom my diocese has been linked for forty years and a country I have grown to love. So, I am here to listen and learn and be better informed about the situation in Sudan, but also here to offer an outside perspective on a matter of current importance. It is clear that three or four issues predominate here in relation to freedom of religion. I will come back to these in a moment.

Freedom of religion is integral to any consideration or exercise of human rights, based in a common humanity. Constitutions can commit to freedoms that become more difficult when we try to enshrine them in law which then shapes the lived experience of minority groups. It is precisely the translation of these commitments into real experience that is challenging. But, discrimination that is experienced by minorities becomes the touchstone of whether there is actually space for religious freedom that sees all people and faiths as equals and not just the recipients of generosity from the majority.

The three issues that become the touchstone of freedom are: (a) the closure of schools on Sunday in Khartoum State; (b) the demolition of churches and issues of land registration; (c) the default registration of babies as ‘Muslims’ (and the difficulty for Christians and others in correcting it afterwards – it can take years). A fourth issue is apostasy and the freedom to convert.

In my diocese we learned many years ago that leaders and members of faith communities need to build strong relationships when there is peace – when things are good and there is little or no conflict. It is no good waiting until a crisis occurs and then trying to build instant strong relationships; we build strong relationships in the good times in order that we are ready in solidarity for robust conversation when things get more tense.

The particular issues here in Sudan to which I referred earlier become touchstones of how freedom is experienced. So, to achieve a simple change in respect of several matters indicates something substantial about the reality of the commitments made in the Constitution regarding freedom of religion for citizens as equals. How are the commitments made in the Constitution to be translated into law and then protected in practice?

For many years I represented the Archbishop of Canterbury at global interfaith conferences where the key aspiration was ‘tolerance’. This is a weak word in English: it means that I tolerate (bear with) you, but I need not engage with you in any way that costs me anything. As a Christian I must go further. Jesus spoke of loving our neighbour – and love goes far further than tolerance. Love makes equal space and defends the interests of one’s neighbour even at cost to oneself. Love is costly … or it isn’t love.

The question for this workshop is, then, to recommend changes that the Government could easily make in respect of religious freedom. Freedom to convert goes to the heart of freedom of religion. Should an Interreligious Council be revived in order to facilitate strong conversation, relationship and advocacy? Will Muslims – the majority – stand up for the equal interests of Christians and other minorities? I trust that the workshop today will address real changes in Sudan – not only in concepts of freedom, but also in lived commitments that ensure this becomes a reality for those who find themselves discriminated against.

My key question was how to enable especially politicians to hear and respond to critical points. Freedom of religion is indicative of how human rights are negotiated and protected, so the theme itself should be seen in a wider light. There was no element of special pleading by the Christian minority, but that equality of rights and obligations in a mature democratic society must be guaranteed. Constitutions that guarantee rights and freedoms have to be supported by laws that enable them to function; but, religious (and ethnic) minorities in Sudan experience a lack of alignment between law and constitution.

Recommendations read out at the end of the day included some key ones: Sunday rules in Khartoum State that forced Christians to have Friday and Saturday as public holidays – meaning that Sunday had to be a work day – have been dropped. Problems of land registration and the demolition of churches were addressed head-on, and consideration will now be given to how the processes might be made more transparent and discussions with affected communities be handled more wisely. The registration of babies as default Muslims (and the later correction of such in the case of Christians and others) will be looked at – the principle objection was acknowledged and the administrative processes will be addressed. Perhaps the boldest recommendation – which was suggested by a government minister – was the establishment of a law reform commission to examine and report on divergence between law and constitution.

We will be following up progress on these and other matters (clear and strong representations from Muslims across civil society that apostasy should play no role in civil law and that sharia should not frame the law of the state, for instance).

So, a full visit, excellently facilitated by the British Embassy (and including preaching, meeting bishops and clergy), saw some frank discussion of challenges in Sudan, especially those that concern deeply the wider international community. Security was tight, but Khartoum felt largely relaxed. Protests are being organised at many localities rather than in one place, and some activists are clear that they will lead to change. We will see.

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