It was three years ago that South Sudan attained its independence. Although media and public interest in Sudanese affairs has since waned rather significantly, there are important reasons for continued attention and engagement. North Sudan remains a human-rights flashpoint, the new Republic of South Sudan is facing significant economic challenges and tribal strife, and untapped oil and gas resources give the area considerable strategic significance. The United States should remain deeply interested in seeking to improve conditions there, and to be successful it will need to recognize the role that religion has played, and likely will continue to play, in shaping the state of affairs.
Sudan has been one of the most violent and war-torn places on the globe in modern history. A 20-year civil war resulted in 2 million dead and extraordinary poverty. President Omar al-Bashir, the man who waged this war, maintains his totalitarian grip on North Sudan, governing the country under sharia law. Intolerance of Christians in what is now South Sudan was at the heart of the war, and religious extremism and oppression of Christians remain central tenets of governance in the North.
Compared with conditions for religious freedom in other countries around the world, those in North Sudan are about as abysmal as one could imagine. The extreme tenets of sharia were enshrined in the country’s 1991 criminal code, which is applied to Muslims and Christians alike. Crucifixions, as well as amputations and harsh beatings, have occurred in the past year. Meriam Ibrahim, who was charged with the crime of “apostasy” because she had married a Christian, was forced to flee the country and seek refuge in the United States. Though her father was Muslim, she was raised by her Christian mother and considers herself a Christian. Pregnant at the time of her arrest, she gave birth in a Khartoum prison, where she was being held with her 20-month-old son.
President Bashir and other North Sudanese political leaders have vowed that the country’s permanent constitution, once drafted and adopted, will be premised on sharia as well. South Sudanese Christians who remain in North Sudan have not been afforded the rights of citizenship, in clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and several other international human-rights instruments. These 500,000 Christians live at risk of deportation, and the North Sudanese government has closed a number of their churches and threatened to close others.
Khartoum has also invoked jihad to wage war against its own citizens in the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. A fair number who live there either are not loyal to the Bashir regime or would have preferred to be part of South Sudan, which the states now border. The North Sudanese army has indiscriminately targeted their populations in vicious aerial bombardment and ground war, in an effort to cleanse the area of Christians and moderate Muslims who oppose President Bashir’s rule. Thousands have died, hundreds of thousands are refugees, and many have been executed or arrested.
The United States should continue to level its sanctions against North Sudan. These include an embargo on the importation of goods, bans on the exportation of technology, the prohibition of transactions with the petroleum and petrochemical industries, and a ban on the extension of credit to the government. The United States should rally the international community, and particularly the EU, around the adoption of a similarly broad range of sanctions. At present, most countries’ sanctions on North Sudan cover only the exportation of arms.
What are the prospects for freedom of religion in the Republic of South Sudan? It is too early to know for sure. On the positive side of the ledger, provisions for religious freedom in South Sudan’s transitional constitution are strong, basically tracking international human-rights protections. There are no indications that the process of establishing a permanent constitution will scale back these protections.
It also is encouraging that the highest-ranking government officials in South Sudan have longstanding good relationships with the most prominent Christian religious leaders in the country. Equally important, Christian religious institutions have been an indispensable feature of South Sudanese life, and it is hard to see how the people would tolerate incursions on religious liberty.
These institutions were central in highlighting the plight of South Sudan during the civil war. Religious leaders were also instrumental in negotiating peace and reconciliation between antagonistic tribes in the South, helping to unite South Sudan and make it a stronger force against North Sudan’s aggression. Through public education and advocacy from the pulpit, religious institutions rallied South Sudanese Christians, as well as Christians in churches across the United States, to put pressure on those who were involved in the peace process to ensure that the agreement ending the civil war would not be abandoned. And churches were the driving force in preparing and motivating the South Sudanese people to vote in the referendum that established their country.
#page#There is a small Muslim community in South Sudan, probably less than 3 percent of the population, but there are no signs that it is subject to state-sponsored repression and discrimination or to private attacks with impunity. In my visits to South Sudan over a five-year period just prior to its independence, I saw no evidence of acrimony between Muslims and Christians. In fact, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom on several occasions brought Muslim and Christian leaders together for meetings, something that would not be possible in many countries in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East.
There are, however, some risks worth watching. The very tenacity that made South Sudanese religious institutions and leaders so important in ending the civil war and establishing an independent state might just as easily make them a nuisance to government leaders who do not wish to be criticized, pressed, or opposed. South Sudanese churches and church leaders believe very deeply that it is a central part of their religious ministry to address the plight of the people. When past government corruption or incompetence adversely affected the people’s well-being, churches and church leaders did not hesitate to stir up controversy that was almost certainly not welcomed by some government leaders.
Experience from all around the world — from China and Vietnam to Cuba and Venezuela — amply demonstrates that, when political leaders believe dissent and competing loyalties threaten their dominance, they suppress freedom of religion. In my final couple of trips to South Sudan before its independence, I occasionally heard political leaders or government officials say that Evangelical church leaders had no business speaking about “politics” from the pulpit. By this they meant that religious figures should not criticize officials for waste and corruption. The U.S. should caution South Sudan against requiring churches to register with the government, a subject of discussion since just before independence, because such a system could readily be used to discriminate against church communities that are critical of government policy.
The Marxist underpinnings of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the dominant political party in South Sudan, also present risks. Though the old war horses of the party have enjoyed good relationships with religious leaders going back to pre-war days, and often can be seen in the front pews at Sunday Masses and services in Juba and elsewhere around the country, some of the younger party leaders and government officials appear to be more indifferent to religion. In my meetings with that younger generation, they seemed less familiar with the centrality of the churches in the long, hard road to independence, more impatient with criticism of government by church leaders, and more willing to regulate religious institutions.
One also sees clearer references to Marxist ideology among some young party leaders than among the older generation, whose preoccupation with war and need to befriend the West probably placed Marx and Engels on the back shelf. The younger generation of fighters and party members essentially grew up in civil war and had little experience of the normal workings of church institutions. Instead, they saw pastors and clergy in the bush. They are still observing how churches operate in civil society, and still learning that religious institutions are most able to add value to a culture when they may speak and function independently. In diplomatic exchanges with this younger generation of South Sudanese leaders, it will be important to stress the demonstrated correlation between freedom of religion and stability, security, and prosperity.
Religion was the driving force behind President Bashir’s brutal war, but it was just as surely what strengthened the South Sudanese the most and brought them out of darkness. Religious extremism leads to unthinkable atrocities, while freedom of religion and a robust civil society that includes religious institutions lead to stability, security, prosperity, and hope for a better future. This is the central chapter in the modern history of Sudan. Its lesson is one that the free people of South Sudan, and other countries grappling with questions of religious freedom, would be wise to remember.
– Mr. Leo served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 2007 to 2012, and was its chairman from 2009 to 2012.