New persecution in Sudan: Religion News Service report leads mainstream media

"Courage is contagious," Billy Graham has said. "When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened."

Whether from courage or just old-school nose for news, the Religion News Service deserves thanks and applause for its Wednesday story on a new round of persecution in Sudan.

Remember Meriam Yayha Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman who was jailed and threatened with death last year? Well, something like that is happening again: The government there has jailed two pastors, charging them with spying and, according to RNS, with "assault on religious belief."

In a way, it's even worse this time around. Ibrahim was accused of "apostasy," deserting the Islamic faith. Her counter-argument was that her mother raised her as a Christian and she never converted to the faith of her father. She won her case and was released in a month, then emigrated to the United States.

In the current case, neither the Rev. Michael Yat nor the Rev. Peter Yein Reith is accused of leaving Islam. At bottom, their arrests stem from the creation of South Sudan in 2011 after a long, brutal civil war. Both ministers are members of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church.

As RNS tells it:

Yat was arrested last year after visiting the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church’s Bahri congregation in Khartoum, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a charity that works on behalf of persecuted Christians.
The congregation had resisted the takeover of the church by a Muslim businessman, who had demolished part of the worship center.
In December, police beat and arrested 38 Christians for worshipping in the church.
With Yat’s arrest, South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church sent Reith with a letter to the authorities to demand his release. He was arrested on Jan. 11.

RNS adds that since the creation of South Sudan, the northern nation "has forced out all foreign missionaries, raided churches and arrested and interrogated Christians on grounds that they belonged to South Sudan." So Yat's and Reith's case is an apparent blend of governmental paranoia and Sudan's militant form of Islam.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide is a good source for this report. Groups like CSW and Forum 18 constantly track reports of religious persecution, regardless of headline value.

RNS may have gotten the idea from Christian Today, a non-mainstream news outlet. That site (not to be confused with Christianity Today) ran a long, 600-word piece on continuing violations of religious rights in Sudan. The story, by Kiri Kankhwende, press officer for Christian Solidarity, also reports the arrests of pastors Reith and Yat.

Kankhwende shows a sharp eye for the Sudanese socio-political context as well as that of religion:

The erosion of human rights in Sudan is not only restricted to freedom of religion or belief. The country's recent election, which saw the return of President Omar al Bashir, was marred by arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances of opposition activists. Several opposition parties boycotted the vote entirely stating it would not be free or fair, which resulted in low voter turnout.
Meanwhile, the situation for Sudan's religious minorities is more precarious. Although some religious groups have continued to practice their faith with limited government interference, it's questionable how long this freedom will remain, especially as President Bashir returns with what he considers to be a mandate from the people.

One could also look at African media. Sudan-based Radio Tamazuj reported Yat's arrest on Jan. 21. The report takes only six paragraphs, though.

Having provided the breakthrough in mainstream media , RNS' story has spread fast.

Huffington Post posted the story on Thursday. So did Crux, the Catholic newsmagazine of the Boston Globe. So did Pulse, based in Nigeria.

And now that the story is out there, Agence France-Presse has awakened. AFP was in Khartoum on Tuesday when the trial began for Yat and Reith.  AFP was scrupulous in citing the opening statements of both sides:

At the opening of their trial, prosecutors called for them to be convicted of crimes against the state and the constitution, as well as crimes of hatred, inciting ethnic hatred, espionage, and disrupting public order.

"Their mission is to preach the Christian religion, and there is nothing in Sudanese law against this," said their lawyer, Muhannad al-Hussein.

In its story, RNS quotes a couple of great sources: CSW's chief executive, Mervin Thomas, and the Rev. Kori Romla Koru, general secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches. I would have liked also to see something from a governmental official, and a Sudanese Muslim leader as well. An imam of a mosque near the beleaguered church would have been a good idea, too.

The article also didn't explain the "takeover" of Reith's church by a Muslim businessman. Who was he, and how he do that? Did he buy it? Get the government to condemn it on some pretext? And did RNS seek out a quote from him?

In fairness, I should note that Kiri Kankhwend's article -- which ran four days earlier in Christian Today -- didn't even mention the takeover, let alone ask the above questions.

But with the trial on news media radar, we may get details on that and other facets. Kudos still goes to Religion News Service for turning the spotlight on a story that should get attention not just from Christians, but from any freedom-loving person.

Oppressors of all types thrive when nobody knows or cares what they do. In Sudan, RNS is helping to deny them that luxury.

Photo: An unidentified child prays in an outdoor church in South Sudan in 2013. Photo by John Wollwerth via

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