JUBA, South Sudan (BP) — Two South Sudanese Christian pastors arrested for their faith on charges punishable by death were convicted on lesser counts today (August 5) and released on time served, Morning Star News reported.
Yat Michael, 49, was convicted of “inciting hatred,” according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), for delivering a message of encouragement to a North Khartoum church in December 2014 in the midst of a government-aided take-over of the congregation’s property. Peter Yein Reith, 36, was convicted of “breaching public peace,” CSW reported, following his Jan. 11 arrest for submitting a letter from leaders of their denomination, the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, inquiring about the whereabouts of Michael.
Agents from Sudan’s notorious National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), said to be manned by hardline Islamists, had arrested the pastors and held them for weeks before formal charges were filed, according to Morning Star News, inciting an international outcry over the injustice.
Among those advocating for the pastors’ release was the American Center for Law and Justice, which posted on their website comments from the pastors after their release.
“They released us today. We are happy. We had heard we won’t be released. But praise God!” Michael was quoted. Reith added, “We are very happy now we are free because of your prayers. Thank you for all that you have done for us. God heard your prayers and we are free!”
Inciting hatred among or against sects is punishable by up to two years in prison, according to Article 64 of the Sudanese Penal Code. Disturbance of the public peace, is punishable by six months of prison, a monetary fine or as many as 20 lashes, Article 69 of the code stipulates.
The pastors had also been charged with spying, punishable by death, life imprisonment or prison and confiscation of property; undermining the constitutional system, punishable by death, life imprisonment, or imprisonment and confiscation of property; disclosure and obtaining information and official documents, punishable by two years in prison or a fine; blasphemy/insulting religious creeds, punishable by a year in prison, a fine or up to 40 lashes; and joint acts in execution of a criminal conspiracy.
The defense had called for the charges to be dropped due to a critical lack of physical evidence.
The Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church that Michael had encouraged was the subject of government harassment, arrests and demolition of part of its worship center as Muslim investors tried to take it over. Police in North Khartoum beat and arrested 38 Christians from the church on Dec. 2, 2014, and fined most of them, releasing them later that night.
More than a year earlier, on Oct. 5, 2013, Sudan’s police and security forces had broken through the church’s fence, beaten and arrested Christians and asserted parts of the property belonged to a Muslim investor accompanying police. As Muslims nearby shouted, “Allahu Akbar [God is greater],” plainclothes police and personnel from the NISS broke onto the property aboard a truck and two Land Cruisers.
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 that would 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. Authorities have raided Christian bookstores, arrested Christians and threatened to kill any Christians who refused to help police capture others, Morning Star News has reported.
Sudan fought a civil war with the south Sudanese from 1983 to 2005, and in June 2011, shortly before the secession of South Sudan the following month, the government began fighting a rebel group in the Nuba Mountains that has its roots in South Sudan.
Due to Christian persecution 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 in its 2015 report that the country remain on the list.
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.