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.