Khartoum Christians celebrate Easter under Islamic law

KHARTOUM (AFP) — Tens of thousands of Sudanese Christians marked Easter in Khartoum on Sunday, still suffering from discrimination under Islamic sharia law three years after a peace deal radically improved their lot.

Christians say they have been free to practise their religion since the January 2005 deal ended two decades of civil war between the Arab Muslim dominated regime in Khartoum and the largely Christian or animist south.

Yet limited restrictions live on. Clerics say government schools ban Bible study, employers grant fewer holidays to Christians, and gatekeepers at Khartoum University and family parks refuse entry to non-veiled women.

There are restrictions on building new churches. Sharia law favours Muslims in inheritance and bans alcohol. Clerics say women can be stopped for what the authorities consider inappropriate dress.

“On Easter, I think we reflect on the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the same time we also reflect on the suffering of the community,” Reverend Cannon Sylvester Thomas told AFP at the Episcopalian All Saints’ Cathedral.

On December 31, 2006, police fired tear gas into the church wounding six people. Last week, Thomas said the security service alerted the church to threats from Arab tribesmen seeking to avenge fighting with southern ex-rebels.

The Central Intelligence Agency factbook puts the proportion of Christians in Sudan at five percent in the population of 39 million. Priests say up to two million Christians live in Khartoum, the majority Catholics and Anglicans.

There is no Easter egg tradition, instead it’s a hearty dose of Church, followed by sweets and dates to offer visiting friends, family and Muslim neighbours.

On Monday, dozens of Episcopalian parishes expect to pull in 5,000 to 10,000 followers for a day of prayer, teachings and feasting on two slaughtered bulls.

Father Roko Taban, who is leading Easter services at St Matthew’s Cathedral, the city’s most imposing church on the banks of the Nile and close to the Republican Palace, said he would focus prayers on the fragile peace agreement.

“The main focus is that peace be well maintained and implemented. This is our hope and our desire, that people will not go back to war,” he said.

Taban says educated Christians at least are beginning to flex their muscles, largely flouting the conservative norms of dress. Christian girls are frequently seen in short sleeves, low-cut tops and knee-grazing skirts.

“A good number of the educated people that we have… are beginning to fight for their rights. They want to be considered as equal with Muslims. Why should they be second class citizens when they are Sudanese?” Taban says.

Muslim hardliners often paint Sudanese Christians as stooges of the West.

Last November, when a British teacher was arrested, put on trial and jailed for insulting religion in allowing pupils to name a teddy bear Mohammed, Sudanese Christians were affected.

“Fanatics wanted to burn the church, they wanted to burn the school. They were shouting death to the Christian community,” recalls Thomas.

“For us we are always sensitive on that. Whenever such a thing comes up, they are taking the chance to begin to threaten the Christian community… Some people adopt a low profile because of these fanatics.”

Most of the fighting between the government and the southern rebels was concentrated in the south and southerners shouldered a disproportionate share of the suffering.

The conflict killed at least 1.5 million Sudanese and masses of southerners fled to neighbouring countries or north to the wealthier Khartoum, where many still live in impoverished shanty towns.

Abbas Sadigeen, 45, one of the few in the Christian section of the mudbrick al-Gariya neighbourhood who has a job, says the community is frequently targeted over the potent homebrew popular with Sudanese Muslims.

“For example, our sister over there,” he says, gesticulating at Jalila Suleiman, a mother of six who earlier insisted that she experienced no problems as a Christian.

“Police came to her. She sells alcohol. They took 270 Sudanese pounds (135 dollars) in bribes and even then took away her local drink afterwards.”


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