KHARTOUM, SUDAN - Sudan’s appointment of a Coptic Christian to the transitional ruling Sovereign Council has raised hopes that Christians will see equal rights after decades of oppression under former president Omar al-Bashir.
Sudan’s Coptic Christians celebrated in September after the first and only Christian, a Copt, was sworn in as a member of the ruling Sovereign Council.
The ethno-religious Copts are indigenous to northeast Africa and, numbering about half a million, one of the largest Christian communities in Sudan.
While the 11-member council will be in power for only a three-year transition to elections, the choice of Raja Nicola Issa Abdul-Masseh is seen by many Christians as a turning point.
Coptic Amir Joseph Suleman says Sudan’s Christians have long been fighting for a voice in government.
“I do believe that we are turning the page on religious oppression, and I think that the appointment of Raja Nicola is a victory not just for the Christians in Sudan but for freedom in Sudan," said Suleman.
Sudan’s Christians, including Copts, took part in the uprising and sit-in around army headquarters that led to the April ouster of former president Omar al-Bashir after three decades in power.
Under Bashir’s Islamist rule, rights groups say Sudan’s religious minorities, like Christians, faced restrictions and abuse.
Very few Sudanese Christians were in government and their rights and activities were limited.
Christian churches, schools, libraries, and cultural centers were closed under the pretext of not having the right permits.
Expert on Sudan’s minorities, Sali Zikra, says there were no equal rights for Christians like the Copts under Bashir.
“The political oppression of the Copts in Sudan can be attributed to the wrong assumption of the Sudanese elites and ruling classes who looked at Copts as second-class citizens," said Zikra. "So, they asked them to do their duties as citizens but banned their political rights.”
The situation for Sudan’s Christians only worsened when mainly traditional and Christian South Sudan declared independence in 2011, after years of civil war.
Leading up to the separation, Bashir declared there would be no time to speak of cultural and ethnic diversity and that Islamic law would be the constitution’s main source.
Despite Sudan’s official oppression of Christians, relations with Muslims were not bad, says Coptic Father Filotheos Faraj.
“We as a Coptic community faced hard times during the past regime, but we have never lost our coexistence with other Sudanese communities," said Faraj. "And we kept making Ramadan Iftar with the Muslim [community], and even the former president and some ministers attended these events.”
One of the conditions of the United States for removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism is the granting of religious freedoms.
Father Faraj says since Abdulmessih’s appointment to the council in August, hundreds of Copts who fled Sudan under Bashir have been returning, and with great hope for Christians.
But with Sudan’s military still the power behind a transitional government, it remains to be seen if their prayer for Christians’ equal rights will be answered.