A pastor and another Christian serving a 12-year sentence in Sudan were freed today after they were granted a presidential pardon, sources said.
The Rev. Hassan Abdelrahim Tawor had been in prison since his arrest in December 2015, as was Abdulmonem Abdumawla of Darfur. They were convicted on baseless charges of assisting Czech aid worker Petr Jasek - pardoned and released on Feb. 25 - in alleged espionage, causing hatred among communities and spreading false information, according to their attorney.
"We thank God for his release, that is all I can really say for now," the pastor's wife told Morning Star News.
Christians gathered at Abdelrahim Tawor's home today to thank God for answering their prayers.
"Thank God for all who really carried a campaign for the release of our two brothers," another relative said.
The two Christians had received 10-year sentences for the espionage-related charges, and two years of prison for "inciting hatred between sects" and "propagation of false news." The sentences were to be served consecutively.
Advocacy group Middle East Concern released a statement saying Christians in Sudan rejoice at their release and requested prayer for "an end to the increasing pressure against churches and other religious minorities in Sudan, and that they will know the peace of the Lord," and "that all officials involved will be touched by God's love and will change their ways."
Pastor Abdelrahim Tawor, along with other pastors, was arrested after attending a missions conference in Addis Abba, Ethiopia in October 2015. Upset by the conference, officials with Sudan's National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) interrogated him about accusations that those in attendance spoke of Sudan's government persecuting Christians, a claim church leaders deny.
Serving with the Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC), Pastor Abdelrahim Tawor was arrested from his home on Dec. 18, 2015, as was the Rev. Kwa (also transliterated Kuwa) Shamaal, head of Missions of the SCOC. Pastor Shamaal was acquitted on Jan. 2 of charges ranging from spying to inciting hatred against the government.
Pastors Shamaal and Abdelrahim Tawor were charged with trying to tarnish the image of Sudan's government by collecting information on persecution of Christians and genocide in the Nuba Mountains. The charges included collecting information for "other parties hostile to Sudan." They were accused of conducting intelligence activities and providing material support for Nuba rebels in South Kordofan under two charges that carry the death penalty - waging war against the state (Article 51 of the Sudanese Criminal Code) and spying (Article 53).
Foreign diplomats and international rights activists took notice of the case after Morning Star News broke the story of the arrest of two pastors. Their arrest was seen as part of a recent upsurge in harassment of Christians.
Abdumawla was arrested after he began collecting money to help a friend, Ali Omer, who had needed treatment for burns suffered in a student demonstration. Abdumawla contacted pastor Abdelrahim Tawor, who donated money for Omer's treatment, which reportedly raised the ire of Sudanese authorities.
Authorities also were said to have found Jasek also had given money for Omer's medical costs, but prosecutors accused Jasek of donating it to rebel groups.
Prosecutors had charged Jasek, also arrested in December 2015, with "tarnishing Sudan's image" by documenting persecution. At one hearing, an official with NISS accused the defendants of conducting "hostile activities against the state that threaten the national and social security" in Sudan.
Most SCOC members have roots among the ethnic Nuba in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan's South Kordofan state, where the government is fighting an insurgency. The Nuba along with other Christians in Sudan face discrimination and harassment, as Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir has vowed to introduce a stricter version of sharia (Islamic law) and recognize only Islamic culture and Arabic language.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said in a press statement that the advocacy group welcomes the return of the Christians to their families after 17 months of detention.
"However, their case highlights our profound concerns regarding the rule of law in Sudan and the politicization of the criminal justice system by the National Intelligence and Security Services, which pursued the case against them," he said in the statement. "We continue to call for the government to review and reform the powers of this body and to end the targeting of religious and ethnic minorities on spurious grounds."
Their release comes at a time of increased government pressure on ethnic and religious minorities in Sudan, he stated. On May 7, the last remaining church building in the Soba al Arabi area outside Khartoum was demolished. The church belonged to the SCOC, in which Abdelrahim Tawor served as a minister and vice moderator prior to his arrest, Thomas noted.
Harassment, arrests and persecution of Christians have intensified since the secession of South Sudan in July 2011. 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.
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 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 2017 report.
Sudan ranked fifth on Christian support organization Open Doors' 2017 World Watch List of countries where Christians face most persecution.
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