KHARTOUM, Sudan — After he met with Christian leaders and attorneys, the Trump administration’s head of humanitarian aid on Tuesday urged Sudan’s government to improve protections for religious minorities and human rights.
Mark Green, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, said he had received “assurances” on religious protections from the government in the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country, though he offered no details of his discussions on the issue with Prime Minister Bakri Hassan Saleh and Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour.
“This is a conversation that will take place,” he told reporters after meeting with Bakri and Ghandour, “ … to prepare ourselves for a decision coming in early October.”
But Green insisted talks on religious freedoms and human rights are not linked to conditions the United States demands Sudan meet before an Oct. 12 deadline for deciding whether to permanently lift decades-old sanctions against the country. President Barack Obama outlined the conditions when he temporarily suspended sanctions in January. They include more humanitarian access, cooperation on counterterrorism, and steps to address domestic conflicts peacefully.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would like to apply more pressure on Sudan to improve its record on human rights and religious freedoms, which he has singled out for criticism in the past. Leery of appearing to move the goal post after Sudan has already started to make progress on the original set of conditions, U.S. officials are increasingly raising the issue in the context of future actions expected if Khartoum hopes to improve relations with Washington.
Christians in Sudan have long complained of unfair and discriminatory behavior toward them, both by the government and in society at large.
Most Christians in Sudan, except for the well-off and established Coptic community, are from tribes in southern Sudan. Generally they are poor and marginalized. When the separate nation of South Sudan became independent in 2011, the government forcibly pushed many Christians to go there. But as South Sudan has descended into war and chaos, many Christians have returned to Sudan.
Today, the government estimates Sunni Muslims make up 97 percent of the population, while Christians insist that is an exaggeration. Christians are close to 20 percent of the population, they say.
Sudan’s constitution promises freedom of religion, and the government denies that it discriminates or persecutes religious minorities. But many Christians say they have been ignored, disrespected and worse. According to the State Department’s latest religious freedom report, churches in Sudan have been demolished over land disputes, permits for new churches have been denied, and church leaders have been arrested. Proselytizing can be considered evidence of the crime of apostasy.
U.S. officials have consistently raised concerns over human rights and religious freedom whenever they talk with Sudanese officials.
The administration hopes the impending decision on sanctions against Sudan could eventually create more space for Christians to practice their faith as they see fit.
“We are hopeful the extended sanctions review period will provide opportunities for future progress,” Green said in a news conference that state-run media in Sudan largely ignored.