JUBA, South Sudan (Morning Star News) – Sudanese authorities have charged two South Sudanese pastors under laws that call for the death penalty, their attorney said.
National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) officials have charged Yat Michael and the Peter Yein Reith (also transliterated as Peter Yen Reith, pictured) with undermining the constitutional system (Article 50 of the Sudan Penal Code) and spying (Article 53) – offenses punishable by death or life imprisonment – and waging war against the state (Article 51), which calls for the death sentence, said the pastors’ attorney.
They are also charged with inciting organized forces to complain and assaulting religious beliefs, which call for prison sentences, the attorney said.
“The charges are serious,” the attorney, a Muslim, told Morning Star News. “However, we are doing everything possible to ensure their release. We hope to hear good news about their release in coming days.”
NISS is manned by hard-line Islamists who are given broad powers to arrest Christians, black Africans, South Sudanese and other people lowly regarded in the country that President Omar al-Bashir has pledged will be fully Arabic and Islamic. The charges appear to be based solely on the two pastors’ nationality, race and faith, sources said.
Sudan fought a civil war with south Sudanese from 1983 to 2005, and since June 2011 has been fighting a rebel group in the Nuba Mountains that has its roots in South Sudan, which became a separate country in 2011.
Michael was arrested on Dec. 21, 2014 after visiting a church service in Khartoum, and Reith was arrested on Jan. 11 after submitting a letter from leaders of their denomination, the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC), inquiring about the whereabouts of Michael.
Their location was unknown for months, violating international human rights agreements, but on April 30 they were transferred from Khartoum’s downtown police station to a NISS detention center on Street 51 in Khartoum, Michael’s wife told Morning Star News. On Monday (May 4) they were transferred to Omdurman Prison, she said.
Morning Star News managed to speak with Michael on Thursday (May 7).
“God will intervene and protect us even in prison despite the serious charges brought against us,” the pastor said. “Thank you all for your prayers and concerns for us over this long period of imprisonment.”
NISS officials have demanded $12,000 from the SSPEC secretary general, Philip Akway Obang, for the release of the pastors, sources said. Local church leaders expressed their outrage at the attempt to buy the pastors’ freedom, saying they fear NISS would arrest other Christians and make the same demand in exchange for dropping charges.
A NISS officer who identified himself only as Jamal confirmed that the agency had demanded that the pastors pay $6,000 each for the charges to be dropped.
The church that Michael had visited and encouraged in December, Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church, was the subject of government harassment, arrests and demolition of part of its worship center as Muslim investors took it over. NISS officials appear to be determined to punish the pastors for their support of the embattled congregation, sources said.
The two pastors began a hunger strike on April 28 to protest their incarceration. The attorney said the charges against them were quietly filed in March, and that they are awaiting a hearing on Thursday (May 14) in Khartoum North.
The pastors’ families have waited in agony, not knowing how they have been treated.
“We are still worried about their detention,” Michael’s wife said. “Let us continue to pray for them so that God can help them to be released.”
Amnesty International has said holding the pastors incommunicado violates the Interim Constitution of Sudan, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, all of which legally bind the Sudanese Government and all its agents.
“Holding the detainees incommunicado increases their risk of being subjected to torture or ill treatment and/or enforced disappearance,” Amnesty reported in February.
Other Christians in the Bahri congregation have also been arrested. Police in North Khartoum on Dec. 2 beat and arrested 38 Christians from the church that Michael encouraged and fined most of them. They were released later that night.
On Oct. 5, 2013, Sudan’s police and security forces broke through the church fence, beat and arrested Christians in the compound and asserted parts of the property belonged to a Muslim investor accompanying them. As Muslims nearby shouted, “Allahu Akbar (Allah is the greatest),” plainclothes police and personnel from NISS broke onto the property aboard a truck and two Land Cruisers. After beating several Christians who were in the compound, they arrested some of them; they were all released later that day.
Harassment, arrests and persecution of Christians have intensified since the secession of South Sudan in July 2011, when Bashir vowed to adopt a stricter version of sharia (Islamic law) and recognize only Islamic culture and the Arabic language. The Sudanese Minister of Guidance and Endowments announced in April 2013 that no new licenses would be granted for building new churches in Sudan, citing a decrease in the South Sudanese population.
Sudan since 2012 has expelled foreign Christians and bulldozed church buildings on the pretext that they belonged to South Sudanese. Besides raiding Christian bookstores and arresting Christians, authorities threatened to kill South Sudanese Christians who do not leave or cooperate with them in their effort to find other Christians (see Morning Star News).
Due to its treatment of Christians and other human rights violations, Sudan has been designated a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. State Department since 1999, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended the country remain on the list in its 2015 report.
Sudan ranked sixth on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2015 World Watch List of 50 countries where Christians face most persecution, moving up from 11th place the previous year.