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Free at last

Sudan’s era of Islamic dictatorship has ended, and the hard work toward achieving democracy has just begun

Free at last

(AP Photo)

They said it was the best Christmas in 30 years. On Dec. 25 thousands of Sudanese filled the streets of Khartoum, welcoming not only the birth of Christ but also news that they could celebrate it openly. 

President Omar al-Bashir outlawed public Christmas celebrations in 2011. Throughout a 30-year dictatorship, his Islamist-led government cracked down on Christian worship, confiscated church property, and jailed, tortured, and killed Christian believers. A civil war waged under Bashir’s command against the predominantly Christian south killed more than 2 million people.

This Christmas, church bells rang in the capital, businesses closed, and Muslims joined Christians in the streets after Sudan’s new leaders declared it a public holiday—a first since Bashir was ousted from power last April. 

At St. Matthew’s Cathedral Church, the oldest church in Khartoum, a choir sang traditional African hymns before a sanctuary filled with worshippers of all ages. Many of them packed wooden pews facing the altar while others stood along balcony railings above. Outside, rows of chairs arranged by the entrance seated an overflow crowd.

Amna Azhari, an 18-year-old student at Khartoum University, told a reporter it was her first time to visit a church. She said, “I’m very optimistic and I feel not just the political change but I also feel that we as Sudanese, we are all changing positively.”

The holidays highlighted the seismic political changes for Sudan, the third-largest country in Africa and one of the largest in the Arab world. While other protest movements have risen only to falter, a street movement that began one year ago in Khartoum succeeded in overturning one of Africa’s longest-ruling dictators. A year later, a new transitional government is on the move to undo a restrictive Islamic government and replace it with a potentially secular democracy. 

Risks and reversals loom for a ruling council that’s divided between civilians drawn out of the protest movement and military commanders who compose Bashir’s old guard. But for now, progress and cooperation—along with important new steps toward religious freedom—appear like morning gifts waiting under a tree. 

“This is the Sudan we dream of,” said the country’s new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, on Christmas Day, “one that respects diversity and enables all Sudanese citizens to practice their faith in a safe and dignified environment.”

That dream seemed but fantasy in December 2018. Soaring bread prices and empty ATMs—signs of an economy in crisis—drew daily protests that widened from Khartoum across the country and lengthened into spring, when the military in April toppled and jailed the 75-year-old Bashir. 

In calling for the president’s ouster, protesters did not have in mind a military takeover. They pressed for civilian rule, forcing a standoff that culminated in a military crackdown on June 3, now memorialized as the Khartoum Massacre. That cleared the streets and forced the movement underground, where organizers launched general strikes and continued to demand talks with military leaders, including those who opposed them with force. An estimated 250 protesters died during the uprising.

A massive sit-in on June 30 and international pressure triggered the military’s capitulation. In July both sides signed a power-sharing agreement creating a joint civilian-military Sovereignty Council currently headed by Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Hamdok is the head of government. The agreement sets a timetable for general elections in 2022, offering the Sudanese people their first hope of democracy. Skeptics fear the continued authority of Bashir’s military commanders, who are linked to the country’s past and its very recent brutalities. In particular, Burhan’s deputy on the council is Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, a former janjaweed leader from Darfur widely implicated in atrocities carried out under Bashir. But, for an Islamic dictatorship dominated by the military since independence from the United Kingdom and Egypt in 1956, the joint government represents a leap forward.

“I would describe myself as mildly optimistic and hopeful about the new civilian government. I think they are people who will try to do the right thing,” said Alberto Fernandez, a career diplomat who served as chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Sudan from 2007 to 2009 and now heads the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. 

The reason for caution, Fernandez said, “is they don’t have all the power, and it’s the other half who have the guns.” The presence in leadership of armed forces once aligned with Bashir, he said, is a “basic contradiction.” 

Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

People attend a Christmas Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Khartoum. (Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

PRIME MINISTER HAMDOK is at the center of change, with only a window of time to demonstrate civilians can lead the country. To do that requires rescuing a collapsing economy, restoring individual freedoms, and quelling hot spots of violent conflict.

The 64-year-old economist was born in one of the country’s current conflict zones, South Kordofan state. He earned his doctorate in Britain and took up posts with the African Development Bank, the International Labor Organization, and the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa, where he served as deputy secretary. When Hamdok left that position, a staff-written tribute described him as “a diplomat, a humble man, and a brilliant and disciplined mind.” 

Hamdok Cabinet appointments are diverse, and he has handed key responsibilities to Minister of Religious Affairs Nasreddine Mufreh. A young human rights lawyer who rose through the protest ranks, Mufreh in turn has appointed for the first time Christians to senior positions. That includes the new head of the ministry’s Bureau of Churches, once a hotbed for hardcore Islamists.

Mufreh already has taken steps to address past misdeeds, pledging to return confiscated churches and compensate Christians for destroyed property. During a December visit to Washington, Mufreh told WORLD, “The last government stole everything and it all went to them. Our duty is to get it back. The people know now we have a state looking out for their interests.”

Such statements were unimaginable a decade ago when a peace accord allowed South Sudan, where most Christians were based, to secede and become its own country. “It was expected that all the brakes were off with the Muslim government officials in the north, that they would gradually become more radicalized than they were already,” said John Evans, an American pastor and former faculty member at Kenya’s Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology. 

Evans expected the Sudanese pastors he trained would face more and more hostility and threats. “But God’s resurrection power can restrain evil among those most hostile to our faith and even convert them,” he said.

Mufreh emphasizes that Christians have the right to worship freely, and he spearheaded the effort to make Christmas a public holiday. He also has reached out to Sudanese Jews, sending invitations to those forced out of the country “to return to Sudan and participate in its reconstruction.”

“This is the Sudan we dream of, one that respects diversity and enables all Sudanese citizens to practice their faith in a safe and dignified environment.”

Mufreh acknowledged it will take more than pledges to make meaningful change: “So we are not talking about secularism, Islamism, or any religious mission. We talk instead about a civilian state, democratic, with diversity, respecting all the people with freedom, justice, and equality.”

Among its first steps, the council adopted a draft constitution with Sudan no longer defined as an Islamic republic subject to Shariah, or Islamic law. In November it abolished a public order law used to regulate women’s dress and behavior. Mufreh has called for education reforms, which may include ending compulsory teaching of the Quran. 

Mufreh’s office also is tackling corruption and Islamic groups with possible ties to terrorism. The government closed Khartoum offices of Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and it has launched investigations into sham charities, including those laundering money to terror groups. 

Islamic Relief Agency (ISRA) is one, an aid front whose U.S. office was closed after it was used to raise funds for al-Qaeda. The group came under scrutiny last year after documents revealed it received U.S. funding in violation of sanctions. ISRA’s website is now defunct, and the group has not posted updates to its Facebook page since September, but government officials were unable to confirm whether it formally had been closed. 

“It’s endemic through everything, Bashir using the charities to funnel money, and the sheer number of these charities is overwhelming,” said a movement organizer with ties to the new government, whom WORLD isn’t naming for security reasons.

Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

Sudanese gather Dec. 19 to celebrate the first anniversary of the uprising that swept the nation and later toppled president Omar al-Bashir, who had been in power for three decades. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images)

ONE PIECE OF the power-sharing agreement that’s unwritten yet crucial to both sides: Sudan’s removal from U.S. designation as a state sponsor of terror. Without that, Sudan cannot restructure its $60 billion in debt or revive its economy. And it cannot move toward legitimate elections without formally shedding ties to terrorism.

That helps to explain the tempering of military leaders and the government’s laundry list of reforms. Last year the council dissolved Bashir’s National Congress Party. The judiciary tried Bashir on corruption charges (authorities seized more than $113 million from Bashir’s residence during his arrest), and in December it sentenced him to two years’ detention. He is likely to face further charges and may yet be summoned before the International Criminal Court, where an arrest warrant is outstanding for war crimes carried out in Darfur.

In Washington, officials reportedly laid out benchmarks for removal from the terror list. Those include progress in fighting terrorism, eliminating ties with other state terror sponsors (Iran, Syria, and North Korea), ending internal warfare, and improving human rights. The law also requires compensation for victims of terrorism—specifically, to families and survivors of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen. The attacks took place while Bashir gave aid and protection to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda training camps, before bin Laden moved to Afghanistan.

As a first step, the Trump administration in December received a Hamdok-led delegation in Washington and restored diplomatic relations—appointing a U.S. ambassador to Khartoum for the first time in 23 years. It also upgraded Sudan’s standing under the International Religious Freedom Act, where since 1999 it was ranked among the worst violators of freedom. 

For the United States, the terror designation provides leverage for continuing and lasting reform, while halting internal conflict remains one of the Sudanese government’s greatest challenges. 

In Darfur fighting between Arab and African tribes persists, along with concerns about Hemeti and his entanglements. Hamdok visited Darfur last year, launching formal peace talks. He pledged to return civilians to their homes as he walked through displacement camps where more than 1 million Sudanese still live. 

Hamdok also signed an agreement with the UN, opening access for humanitarian aid to all parts of the country. That is bringing to an end decades of “no-go” zones where the Bashir regime attacked and then starved its enemies, most notably in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile.

Last month Hamdok made a historic visit to the Nuba Mountains, a predominantly Christian area at the border with South Sudan. The regime for years has besieged Nuba with aerial bombardments and repeated clashes affecting more than half a million people. 

Hamdok arrived by plane in the Nuba town of Kauda on Jan. 9 with David Beasley, executive director of the UN’s World Food Program, and a team that included U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Donald Booth and numerous European diplomats. With blankets spread on the ground near a school and displaced Nuba seated, the UN team distributed cooked meals—a symbolic end to decades of blocked aid.

Receiving the visitors from the north was Abdelaziz al-Hilu, one of the longest-serving commanders in the rebel SPLM army, a veteran of the 30-year civil war against the government. Beasley called the moment “a major international breakthrough, with the prime minister of Sudan and the opposition leader here today coming together.”

Hamdok and Hilu embraced. Hilu said the visit “affirms the seriousness of the transitional government to achieve peace in Sudan.” He noted that cooperation between the country’s new civilian and military leaders is what made it possible, and he told the gathering, “The more we invest and sweat in search of peace, the less we bleed in war.”

—with reporting by Harvest Prude in Washington, D.C.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.