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03/10/2021 Sudan (International Christian Concern) – Sudan’s transitional constitution, adopted in 2019 after the coup that deposed strongman leader Omar al-Bashir, helped the country make significant strides towards a freer and more open society. As the country prepares to celebrate the two-year anniversary of the coup on April 11, the Sudanese people have much to be proud of. Though social and political freedom has sometimes come slowly, it has come and has led to included increased rights for the country’s religious minorities.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the transitional constitution is that it does not appeal to sharia—something that the previous constitution did to the serious detriment of minority religions in the country. The constitution under Bashir did appeal to sharia, setting the groundwork for the government to outlaw apostasy and criminalize blasphemy against Islam.

The head of the new government, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, has made a concerted effort to enact real reform in the country. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a D.C.-based government commission tasked with studying and advancing religious freedom around the world, visited Sudan in 2020. It met with Hamdok and determined that his government had “ended the former regime’s most egregious forms of religious repression and reaffirmed its commitment to substantive change.”

Religious freedom in Sudan has, indeed, improved since Hamdok took office. As USCIRF notes in its 2020 annual report, the government allowed a Muslim-minority political party to operate openly and even appointed a Coptic Christian woman to the Sovereign Council. Christmas gained recognition as a national holiday—a largely symbolic move but one designed to encourage societal-level change rather than just legal change.

Hamdok even managed to get Sudan removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, making it eligible again for loans from the International Monetary Fund after a flurry of reforms on a number of fronts, both political and civil. In his campaign to have Sudan removed from this list, Hamdok even invited the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to set up offices around the country—an attempt to demonstrate his confidence that the reforms would create real, lasting change on the ground.

Slightly over a year after the coup, Sudan’s apostasy law was struck down in the summer of 2020. In its place, Hamdok’s government actually instituted a prohibition on labeling religious minorities as infidels. Apostasy, or the renunciation of Islam for another religion or no religion, was the basis for several high-profile criminal cases under Bashir and carried with it the death penalty.

However, even with all these successes much more needs to be done if true religious freedom is to become a reality. For one, Hamdok’s success in repealing the apostasy law was only partially replicated in regards to the blasphemy law—in that case, the punishment for blasphemy was reduced from flogging to six months of imprisonment and a fine but the blasphemy law itself still stands and criminalizes the voicing of a minority religious opinion, even if it carries a lesser sentence.

Attacks on religious minorities are still happening, including at the hands of Islamist extremists and government officials. A new history textbook with a picture of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam sparked outrage among Islamic leaders and was recently kept from distribution by Hamdok. The Coptic Church has had issues obtaining permits to construct new church buildings, and church property seized under the Bashir regime have yet to be returned.

That Sudan has made significant progress in the area of religious freedom is certain. Still, more must be done to ensure religious freedom for all. There is positive momentum, and a willingness to enact meaningful, lasting legal reforms to advance religious freedom. This should be capitalized upon and Hamdok’s government must be pushed to continue to reform rather than rest on its laurels and on its newfound acceptance in the international community.

For interviews, please contact Alison Garcia: [email protected].