Sudan


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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One of the partnership links enjoyed by the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales is that developed over thirty years with the dioceses of Sudan. The Bisho of Khartoum and Archbishop-elect of Sudan, Ezekiel Kondo – a wonderful, wise and brave man – has issued a statement about the death sentence passed under Sharia law on a Christian woman who is pregnant with her second child.

It is important that politicians, religious leaders and leading Muslims at home and abroad raise their voice in protest against this barbaric and illegal judgement. In the meantime, here is the statement issued in Khartoum:

Re: Mariam Yahya Ibrahim and Death Sentence by Court in Sudan

Introduction:

On Thursday 15th. May 2014 in Haj-Yousif Court, Mariam Yahya was sentenced to death and 100 lashes for changing from being Muslim to Christian and for commiting adultery because she is married to a Christian man.

Mariam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag was born from a Christian mother (Ethiopian Orthodox) and a Muslim father. Her father left them when she was age 6, and she was raised by her mother as a Christian. Mariam is married to a Sudanese/American Christian husband. Mariam was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity simply because her father was a Muslim. The fact is that Mariam has been a Christian since as she was brought up by her mother who has been a Christian. According to the report, Mariam, the husband and their son were all arrested because they had changed their religon, but then, the husband was released, Mariam is sentenced to death and 100 lashed for her adultery because she accepted to marry a Christian man. Their marriage is revoked. Now, Mariam and her son are in prison until she gives birth, then she will be excuted.

1. According to the above, Mariam has never been a Muslim since her birth. The fact that she was born from a Muslim father, this does not make her a Muslim in any way because she was brought up by her mother as a Christian.

2. The verdict reached by the court on Mariam is a clear and direct perscution on Christians and the Church in the Sudan.

3. The verdict on Mariam Yahya is a Human Right and Religious violation against Christians in the Sudan.

4. This sentence is even against Sudan Constitution 2005 Article 38 on Freedom of Creed and Worship. “Every person shall have the right to the freedom of religious creed and worship, and to declare his/her religion or creed and manifest the same, by way of worship, education, practice or performance, subject to requirements of the law and public order, no person shall be coerced to adopt such faith, that he/she does not voluntarily consent”.

5. There is again another court case going on right now in Kalakla, Khartoum, of a young man who has been accused of being converting from Muslim to Christian according the Almeghar News Paper of today 21st May 2014. This young man may face the same fate as Mariam did.

Episcopal Church of Sudan Internal Province hereby condemns this court decision and requests the Ministry of Justice to review the case of MariamYahya and release her immediately. She is free to believe in religion of her choice. Episcopal Church of Sudan also requests the authorities in Kalakla to free the young man. The last judgment on the faith should be left to God alone.

The spirit of dialogue, coexistence and love that the President of the Republic called upon should be upheld.

The Most Revd. Ezekiel Kondo

Archbishop-elect and Bishop of Khartoum

21st May 2014

The world is not a comfortable place just now. But, let's keep this in perspective: it is never comfortable, never has been, never will be. For most people with a pulse, life is tough and good times should not be taken for granted. Yesterday, spending an hour with a group of teenagers on a big outer-Bradford estate, we looked at who pays the price when we buy cheap clothes in England or drink coffee from companies that pay no tax here and probably don't pay the coffee growers a living or just price for their beans.

We do injustice and greed far better than we do justice and selflessness.

Italy is paralysed – demonstrating that Europe's financial crisis is more political than it is economic. It has to do with consensus, leadership and will… and not primarily the availability of cash.

Zimbabwe looks towards elections and the old tactics of violence and threat are already beginning to colour the process as Robert Mugabe seeks the protection of office (again) at the age of 89. Even the Pope can't persuade him to do the decent thing. And who suffers? Well, the 'wrong' tribes, for starters.

Just a few weeks ago we were in Sudan. President Bashir, already indicted before the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in Darfur, continues to pursue what can only be described as ethnic cleansing in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. Stories are coming out increasingly that allow no doubt of the nature of the oppression being exerted by the Khartoum government against its own people.

And there lies the nub of the matter: 'its own people'. The Africans are not seen by the Arab masters as their 'own people'. The Africans are aliens who should go south or disappear. Like all such cleansings – and here, despite the claims of the government, it is clear that the roots of Sudan's bombing and terrorising of civilians is ethnic and racial – people are reduced to categories that then become dehumanised: it is easier to get rid of them, if they cease to be 'people' and become simply 'objects that conform to a categorical type'. See Rwanda, Nazism, etc.

Today serious questions will be asked in the British parliament. Bishops will be urging action by the British Government and its partners in the face of Sudanese indifference to international rhetoric. These bishops are extremely well connected to the grassroots realities in Sudan (as many other places in the world) because we have very close partnership links with dioceses and bishops there. This means we get to see ordinary people living their ordinary lives away from diplomatic environments or media theatres.

After Rwanda we said we would never let this happen again. As Baroness Cox said on BBC Radio 4 this morning, “'again' is happening now”.

 

This is the basic text of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show. Search blog for 'Sudan' to read posts.

I guess most of us have at some time in our life entertained some romantic ideas about exotic places we dream of visiting one day. I remember reading Antony and Cleopatra – Shakespeare, not the Carry On version – when I was at school in Liverpool and imagining the River Nile. Plagued with queen-biting asps, obviously.

Well, a few weeks ago I actually went to the Nile. In fact, I went to both Niles: the Blue and the White. We were visiting Bradford's link diocese in Sudan and every day drove over the bridge in Khartoum where the two rivers converge before heading north to Egypt and so on. I'm not colour-blind, but I tell you: both the Blue and the White Niles look brown to me.

Life is tough for many of the people we were visiting there in Sudan. Outsiders and foreigners are being told to leave, and southerners are being sent… er… south. Now, the reasons for all this are complicated and the politics somewhat controversial; but, what we saw was the human cost of other people's privilege. Put simply, when life gets tough between different peoples, the easiest thing to do is separate… grow apart deliberately.

But, the solving of one problem doesn't bring peace – it simply creates more problems and causes lots of misery for the ordinary people who have to pay the price of powerful people's greed and vanity. But, we in Bradford are bound up with our friends in Sudan and, whatever happens, we will stick by them.

An hour after we left our guesthouse for the airport at one in the morning, the house was raided, guests taken in for questioning, and the place confiscated by the security services. It might be a world away from Bradford and the Yorkshire Dales, but, like the Blue and the White Niles, we have converged and cannot be separated as we travel into the future together.

Disappointingly, I saw no queen-biting asps.

 

This morning (and afternoon) we drove for ages to a poor settlement north of Khartoum, populated by people displaced from the Nuba Mountains. Not all have been displaced by war, however; some came to the city in order to get their kids better educated. Urbanisation claims more victims who thought they were moving towards opportunity and instead met vast indifference and poverty.

Several churches had come together and we were led into the newly-built but unfinished church by choirs of women. The service went on for ever – even though I kept the sermon relatively brief. It was brilliant, loud, funny, and moving. We even danced… And then we ate.

Having left our base at 10.15am, we eventually got back around 6pm.

So, what have I learned this week? Well, we head for the airport in a couple of hours – fairly certain we'll get to Istanbul, but unsure whether we will eventually reach Manchester (because of the snow). Here are the ten things that spring to mind before we leave:

1. Never ever ever drive in Khartoum. That is NEVER. It is unbelievable – only comparable to Jakarta in my experience.

2. These are uncertain times for ex-pats in Sudan. People are being told to leave almost every day. Others are being visited by the security services. I can't see this changing in the short term, and I would not be too hopeful unless I was employed in a business linked to the government.

3. The Episcopal Church of Sudan is resilient, but is suffering from the forced departure of southerners – many of whom exercised leadership and responsibility in and through the church.

4. People with little are incredibly generous.

5. Any simple analysis of why things are happening here is probably wrong and simplistic. Politics, culture, race, religion and language form a complex in a country where the drive is to homogenise into a single race, a single culture, a single religion (Islam), with a single language (Arabic).

6. Racism isn't the sole preserve of white people.

7. Watching the look of misery on Alex Ferguson's face (when Spurs scored the equaliser in the last minute of today's game) is as sweet in Africa as it is in England.

8. You can do less here than at home because the heat is draining. A Sudanese idea of 'a long day' sounds feeble until you try to do it.

9. Sudanese Christians want to know they are not forgotten, that their story is being understood and told, and that their plight is being recognised by advocates in the right places.

10. Never ever drive in Khartoum. Never. Ever. Be driven, but even that is hairy.

So, now to try to get home.

 

This morning we met with four of the bishops of Sudan. Each explained the situation in their own diocese and we had a very fruitful conversation about how we can best build on our relationship to mutual benefit. The talk was open, honest, trustful and opened several doors to future work together.

One bishop was missing. Andudu, Bishop of Kadugli, is in Juba, Southern Sudan, as he is unable to return to his own diocese for reasons of safety. In June 2011 he was in the USA for medical treatment when Sudanese forces started their attack on the Nuba Mountains. While there he made some comments – perhaps without on-the-ground direct knowledge – and the Sudanese government took exception, making it impossible for him to return without endangering his life. His family is in Uganda. He was represented at our meeting this morning by one of his Canons who has had to flee Kadugli and is being cared for by the Diocese of Khartoum.

The situation has confused me a little – the rhetoric in the UK sometimes attributing motive and consequence where convenient, but not making complete sense. I fully accept that this might be evidence of my stupidity rather than a comment on the people doing the reporting or commentating. I could not understand why the bishop (and others could not return, especially as it is more peaceful in some areas right now than it has been). Today I began to grasp it (although what follows is not intended to be a full analysis).

The Sudanese government is attacking supporters of the SPLA. Kadugli itself is under government control, but other areas of South Kordofan are controlled by the SPLA. Thousands of people have fled and the humanitarian cost is being paid for by neighbouring states which are absorbing them. However, the government does not want a repeat of Darfur and, so, has prohibited the erection of refugee camps. This means that people escaping have to find their way to relatives in other cities – leading to families of ten or twenty living in very tight accommodation that was already overcrowded with a single family.

The other dioceses are caring for the refugees who exited by the gateway of El Obeid en route to places like Khartoum. These people have nothing and the people looking to help them have little. More could be said, but suffice it to say here that the courage, tenacity and quiet commitment of the bishops and their people to care for these displaced people is admirable. Last year I launched a 'Kadugli Appeal' in Bradford and so far we have raised £100,000 to enable these people to feed and assist those displaced. Of course, the need goes further – for example, children being absorbed into church schools in Khartoum – but at least something useful is being done.

Each diocese in Sudan faces this need for care of displaced and often traumatised people at the same time as losing some of their leading people to the South. This is another matter to which I will attend when I return to Bradford next week. But, the challenge is enormous… and is being tackled by good people with quiet determination and a shed load of love. It is very humbling.

It is also clear that government attacks in South Kordofan cannot be reduced to simple categories of political allegiance, race or religion, but is shaped by various mixtures of all three. Any analysis that seems simple… is probably wrong.

Our conversation went beyond the diocesan situations to wider issues such as the influence of Saudi Arabia in Sudan and other parts of the region. I was reminded of the need for people like me (who are involved in global interfaith dialogue) sometimes to check the western liberal perspective and look through the lens of Christians in places like Sudan where Islamic rejection of conversion from Islam to Christianity is more than an academic matter. Enough said… for now.

It is salutary that I have just started reading Walter Brueggemann's 2012 book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination. His starting point is that Christians operate in the real world with a 'narrative' that refuses to accept the 'dominant narrative' of the world in which we live. Without ducking the challenges of this, he maintains that Christians must constantly rehearse their own narrative, with God at the centre… even though this God is rejected in the world's dominant narrative (which he later describes as 'self-invention, competitive productivity and self-sufficiency' resulting in 'military consumerism'). Against this, the Christian narrative has to do with 'wonder (instead of self-invention), emancipation (instead of the rat-race of production), nourishment (instead of labour for that which does not satisfy), covenantal dialogue instead of tyrannical monopoly or autonomous anxiety), a quid pro quo of accountability (instead of either abdicating submissiveness or autonomous self-assertion), waiting (instead of having or despair about not having)'.

His point – which (a) he draws out from both Old and New Testaments and (b) reflects the call to responsibility as the heart of freedom that Joachim Gauck speaks about in his little book Freiheit: Ein Plädoyer – is that the world's narrative does not prove adequate (see how an obsession with security leads to massive insecurity, for example), but that this is too often not recognised or appreciated… even by Christians who are supposed to sing from a different hymn sheet. You'll have to read the book to get the point, but Brueggemann bangs the drum he has been beating in almost all his writing and preaching: that Christians must refuse narratives of defeat, ending, destruction and loss by holding to one that affirms perseverance, newness, creation and hope. “Choose life,” is the challenge of the Deuteronomist – which assumes that choices must be made and responsibility taken for those choices. In other words, Christians cannot be escapists from the challenges of power in the world, but, rather, challenge that world's assumptions (and exertions of power) by choosing to live differently in it.

It is perhaps not surprising that this reads with particular power here in Sudan as the day draws towards its close and the Muezzin calls the people to prayer.

 

The last time I was stopped at a police roadblock was in Zimbabwe in 2007. In fact we were stopped at a number of them, mostly while we were en route to Victoria Falls. This morning we were stopped in the dark just outside Khartoum while driving to visit the new Diocese of Wad Medani. Our passports were taken while another bloke with a big red stick poked his head through the car window, saw the white man and asked where we were from. “England” elicited a frown and a sucking of teeth – after which he said, “Football?” I wondered if giving the wrong answer might make our plight worse. “Liverpool,” I said with a smile. He looked at me and said: “You'll never walk alone.”

That's globalisation for you!

Further on in the two-and-a-half hour journey and I got another lesson in how not to jump to conclusions… or misreadings.

The road runs alongside the Blue Nile and either side of it runs a sort of 'ribbon development' in the making (as well millions of plastic bags and bottles, accompanied by an exotic range of animal carcasses at various stages of decay). What I thought I was looking at as we drove (hairily, at 60mph, as if we were playing dodgems) was strings of derelict buildings surrounded by low and deserted compound walls. Another bit of unfinished or neglected infrastructure? Or evidence of communities now abandoned because of conflict or expulsions?

Neither, in fact. These were buildings and walls in process of being constructed. What I saw as falling down was actually being built up. My prejudices – of which I am not proud – were confounded yet again. And it made me wonder how many other such judgements I make that reality might embarrass. All I did was ask the Bishop of Khartoum (our host) and he, unaware of my thinking, just told me people find it cheaper to buy land and gradually build houses outside the city. I didn't know how to read what I saw.

Having cleared that up – and resolving to ask before judging – we received wonderful and generous hospitality at the Cathedral in Wad Medani. This diocese was established only a couple of years ago, carved out of Khartoum which was imply too big. It is still enormous. And it still covers territory that is currently subject to war – creating enormous numbers of displaced people. All the clergy, including the Diocesan Bishop, are volunteers – they are setting the whole thing up from scratch and, already poor, have next to nothing.

But, what they do have is faith in God, a strong commitment to serve the people of that area, and a refusal to give in to any easy option. They are remarkable. Why is it always the church that runs (for example) literacy projects and creates community for people who don't belong to them? It seems that wherever you go in the world, the church is there, using its often meagre resources for the betterment of their people.

At the moment this diocese depends on links with dioceses like mine even to produce a modicum of working capital. They are explicit about wanting to be self-sufficient, but need to get the resources (for example, build shops and a guest house on their land in order to raise a little revenue to then be able to fund clergy and further sustainable projects).

If you know anyone rich who wants to see some cash go to very impressive people in a tough part of the world, point them in my direction.

And now for a meeting with the bishops of Sudan – excluding the Bishop of Kadugli who is now based in the South and cannot return to his own diocese because of the war going on there. More anon.

(Oh… and I have just re-read Joachim Gauck's little book on Freiheit: Ein Plädoyer – basically, we need to know how to use freedom for and not just enjoy freedom from – before moving on to Walter Brueggemann's The Practice of Prophetic Imagination. It's all fun, fun, fun…)

 

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