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The Forgotten War on Sudan’s Christians

Sudan's Christian community has been consistently targeted by both the RSF and SAF since the beginning of the Sudan war, in acts that can be considered war crimes and crimes against humanity.

More than a year of war in Sudan has displaced over 8.2 million people and inflicted countless tragedies with the war belligerents subjecting the population to “unimagined horrors,” including ethnic cleansing, sexual violence, and indiscriminate killing—atrocities that international assessments have well documented. Less talked about but equally horrific is the consistent targeting of the country’s Christian community.

An estimated 5.4 percent of Sudan’s nearly 50 million people are Christian, while 91 percent are Sunni Muslims. The current violations against the Christian community build on a bleak history of prosecution of religious minorities, especially during Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule, when a strict, Sharia-based legal system was imposed on all Sudanese, regardless of their religion or belief. Bashir’s regime employed various intimidation and harassment approaches, specifically against Christians, including destroying worship places, prosecuting religious leaders, and confiscating religious properties, among other tactics. 

The 2011 independence of South Sudan, the predominantly Christian component of the previously unified Sudan, dealt an additional blow to the Christian community that remained in the northern part of the country. Three months later, Bashir declared Sudan would adopt an entirely Islamic constitution. Since then, attacks on churches and Christians worsened.

Not a country of “particular concern”

The Sudanese revolution overthrew Bashir in 2019, but his legacy survived within the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the two sides fighting the current war. Both military groups were instrumental to Bashir until his ouster and were significantly involved in atrocity crimes in Darfur and elsewhere. Their influence on Sudanese politics ballooned post-Bashir as they took part in the 2019 transitional government with civilians, before seizing power altogether in the October 2021 coup

The military component had the upper hand within the transitional government, restricting the changes the Sudanese people rose for. In the meantime, the targeting of the Christian community during that period did not stop, despite the government’s promise to improve the country’s human rights situation. The transition period saw various violations: churches were burned and demolished, religious leaders were arbitrarily arrested, and the General Intelligence Service continued interrogating and threatening members of the Christian community. At the same time, authorities continued denying Christians some rights, including the right to a place of worship, by rejecting requests to build new churches. 

The transitional government, however, was keen on being seen as promoting religious tolerance and reform. In 2020, it scrapped the apostasy law that made renouncing Islam punishable by death. Yet, such changes had little impact on the ground: Muslims who converted to Christianity continued to be prosecuted and tortured, even though the “crime” of apostasy officially no longer existed in the statute books. Other discriminatory legislation, such as the blasphemy law and most articles of the Family Law of 1991 stayed in place.

The transitional government’s tactic, however, bore fruit. In December 2019, the US State Department moved Sudan from the “Countries of Particular Concern” list regarding religious freedoms to the Special Watch List. In April 2021, despite continued violations, Sudan was removed from the Special Watch List. A few months later, the situation worsened significantly after the military factions in the transitional government ousted their civilian partners, and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the coup’s leader, reinstated influential Islamist members of Bashir’s party, the National Congress Party. 

Intentional targeting of churches

The worsening situation for Christians set the scene for war crimes committed against the places of worship, as well as the grave human rights violations against freedom of religion and belief, as soon as the war broke out in April 2023.

More than 165 churches have closed since the start of the war, while others have been destroyed as both the RSF and the SAF seem to have intentionally targeted churches. On April 17, 2023, only two days after the war started, RSF launched its first attack against a church, the Anglican Cathedral in central Khartoum. The church was seized after the attack and used as a military base by the RSF after they physically assaulted and forced people sheltering there to leave.

On April 17, 2023, only two days after the war started, RSF launched its first attack against a church in central Khartoum

The RSF gained ground as the war raged, systematically targeting churches and Christians in the areas they controlled. On May 13, 2023, they attacked Mar Girgis Coptic Church (St. George) in Al-Masalam neighborhood in Omdurman. The church was looted and vandalized. Four men, including the priest, were shot in the attack, and another man was stabbed. The attackers hurled insults at those inside the church, calling them “sons of dogs and infidels,” and sought to force them to convert to Islam while threatening the priest with a dagger in his back.

A similar attack occurred on May 15, 2023, when RSF soldiers broke into the Coptic church complex in Bahri, north of Khartoum, which is composed of three churches, all of which were looted and vandalized. Five members of the clergy were shot, while everyone else was threatened and insulted.

On May 14, 2023, the RSF forcibly evacuated all priests and nuns, including the Bishop of Khartoum and South Sudan, from the Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church on Nile Street in Khartoum to use it as a military base. The RSF had reportedly intimidated and harassed the church’s occupants for a week before forcing them to leave. RSF has also extended its attacks to buildings affiliated with churches, such as the Coptic College and Mar Morcos (St. Mark) Hospital, which were completely looted and vandalized.

In December 2023, when the RSF seized control of Gezira State, the same systematic pattern of attacks against churches continued. The first assault was against a Coptic Christian monastery in Wad Madani on December 16, which has since then been used as a military base. To show that the monks were well treated, the RSF released a video featuring one of their commanders forcefully hugging the priests and giving them money against their will.

On January 12, the Evangelical Church in Wad Madani was set on fire and partially destroyed by the RSF. It was the second arson attack against that church in the span of a month.

Valuable land

The SAF has also shown little interest in protecting Christians and other minorities. The SAF was an integral part of Bashir’s regime that often targeted churches using administrative and court decisions to seize their lands, which are typically valuable due to their prime locations. 

On April 18, three days after the war started, SAF bombed and partially destroyed the Evangelical Church in Bahri, north of Khartoum. Later in the month, it shelled a Christian compound in Gerief West in Khartoum which houses a Bible School and the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. The same compound had been attacked, burned, and bulldozed by Islamic extremists in 2012 without any conclusive investigation into the matter at the time. On November 1, SAF shelled and destroyed the Evangelical church in Omdurman.

On April 18, three days after the war started, SAF bombed and partially destroyed the Evangelical Church in Bahri, north of Khartoum

Buildings belonging to the churches have also been targeted by SAF. The Evangelical Commercial School and the Evangelical Secondary School were bombed in October, three weeks before the church was shelled in Omdurman. On November 3, Mariam Home, which belongs to the Comboni Catholic missionary order in Khartoum, was bombed, leaving five nuns and several children injured. The home was a shelter for many people who fled the war. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was set to evacuate over one hundred vulnerable civilians from that shelter to Wad Madani, south of Khartoum, but the Al-Bara bin Malik Brigade, an Islamist militia affiliated with the SAF, attacked the ICRC convoy. Two people were killed, and seven were injured, including three ICRC staff members.

On November 11, the Orthodox Patriarchate building in the Al-Rawda neighborhood in Omdurman, a SAF-controlled area, was looted and vandalized. The church had a long battle with the authorities to get permission to use this building as a place of worship.

Systematic attacks

The attacks against churches have been systematic and widespread as they are used as part of each group’s military offensives. They are consistent with actions taken by both SAF and RSF leaders following their joint coup in October 2021, marked by the reversal of the already limited democratic gains achieved after the revolution. They are also consistent with the return of Islamists from the Bashir era and the emboldening of extremist non-state actors amid growing impunity. 

These acts are considered war crimes and crimes against humanity. As such, the international community is responsible for holding perpetrators accountable by keeping accountability mechanisms at the forefront of the global response. One critical measure that should be taken is to investigate these human rights violations and abuses through the independent international fact-finding mission (FFM), which the Human Rights Council established in October 2023. Unfortunately, the FFM remains unable to meaningfully fulfill its mandate due to the shortage of funding, which must be overcome before it is too late.

The FFM’s role is necessary to ensure that violations directed at places of worship and vulnerable groups are explicitly documented. Bringing justice to victims is of paramount importance as it is an essential step to stopping such crimes, ensuring they are not repeated, and establishing an equal and just society in post-war Sudan.

Mohaned Elnour is a Sudanese human rights lawyer who has practiced law in Sudan for over 13 years, defending the victims of human rights violations, particularly freedom of religion or belief. He resides in the UK after being forced to flee Sudan in 2018.


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