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An appeal to Pope Francis in Sudanese pastors’ espionage case

(RNS) Human rights activists say the pastors are victims of a campaign against Christians in the Muslim-majority country.

Sudanese Christians outside All Saints Cathedral in Khartoum, Sudan, on March 29, 2008. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili

NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) As the high-profile espionage trial of two evangelical pastors resumes in Khartoum, Sudan, this week, a human rights group is calling on Pope Francis to intervene on their behalf.

The Rev. Hassan Abduelraheem Kodi and the Rev. Kuwa Shamal Abu Zumam of the Church of Christ are accused of spying and providing material support for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), a rebel group fighting the forces of Sudan President Omar al-Bashir in the troubled South Kordofan region.

Christians in majority-Muslim Sudan are following the case closely, and many see it as part of a pattern of persecution against the nation’s Christian minority. Some of the charges — denied by the accused — carry a death sentence.

Detained with the pastors: Peter Justin, a Czech missionary, and human rights activist Abduelmoneim Abdulmwlla.

“We are appealing to Pope Francis to help seek the release of the four,” said Bushra Gamar, chief executive of HUDO, the Human Rights and Development Organization, an independent Sudanese rights group.

“The international community … can also put pressure on the government to respect the constitutional rights of non-Muslims, particularly Christians and their churches,” he said.

Abduelraheem has been detained since December, while Shamal was arrested on the same date, released, but rearrested in May.

Gamar hopes the Vatican can offer to help as it did in the case of Meriam Yahya Ibrahim, the Sudanese doctor who was sentenced to die for apostasy in 2014, when she was pregnant. Her case received considerable media attention and support internationally, which eventually led to her release.

The pastors are accused of fabricating videos that allegedly show government forces committing extrajudicial killings and burning villages. The pastors are also accused of creating material that implicates the government in the demolition of churches, and oppression and torture of Christians.

“I think these are systematic attacks on Sudanese Christians by their government,”  Gamar said of the accusations, which he described as part of a campaign against members of Sudan’s Nuba people — many of them Christians — who have been victims of aerial attacks in the Nuba Mountains region.

Other church and human rights groups share this view and worry about an intensification of persecution against Christians in Sudan.

Ahmad Elzobier, who researches Sudanese cases for Amnesty International, said the legal system disfavors Christians, and the law is used to attack activists and churches.

“The pattern shows a persecution of religious minorities. … I think this is a new way of dealing with the people they don’t like,” said Elzobier.

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