USCIRF calls for release of Sudanese pastors facing trial

by Gregory Tomlin |

(REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah)People from South Sudan attend a church service at a railway station camp, where they have spent the last four years, in Khartoum May 11, 2014. Two pastors with the South Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church are being held for preaching and are charged with spying.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Christian Examiner) – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is calling for the release of two Sudanese pastors arrested by the country's notorious secret police and charged with spying, among other things.

Katrina Lantos Swett, the Commission's chair, said in a press release June 1 the trial for Rev. Yat Michael and Rev. Peter Reith, both pastors in the South Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church, was the result of the baseless charges of undermining Sudan's constitution and warring against the state.

"The trial of Revs. Michael and Reith is a clear example of the Sudanese government's persecution of the country's small Christian minority," Swett said in the press release.

"They are on trial for simply demanding and urging their congregation to remain strong in the face of restrictions on their constitutional right to religious freedom."

Christian Examiner reported earlier on the arrest of the pastors and the government's charge the two were working as agents for "foreign bodies" and collecting information on Sudan's national security infrastructure.

USICRF urges the U.S. government and international community to publicly speak out against the trial, demand the pastors' immediate .release, and press the Sudanese government to abide by its constitutional and international commitments to respect religious freedom for all
- Katrina Lantos Swett, USCIRF

They are also charged with "the disclosure and receipt of official information or documents," "arousing feelings of discontent among regular forces," "breach of public peace," and "offenses relating to insulting religious beliefs," the press release from the Commission said.

The first two charges, undermining the nation's constitution and warring against the state, carry the death penalty.

The government's case may be nothing more than retaliation against the Presbyterian Evangelical Church's Khartoum Bahri congregation. According to the USCIRF, the congregation filed suit against Sudanese authorities to stop the illegal sale of church lands by Sudanese authorities to a Muslim businessman.

Shortly after, in December 2014, officials with the National Intelligence Security Services (NISS) arrested Michael for encouraging the congregation to endure the trials of persecution they were facing. The government also partially destroyed the church and arrest nearly 40 church members before they returned to detain Reith in January 2015.

Neither man was allowed to see a lawyer or family members for months.

"USICRF urges the U.S. government and international community to publicly speak out against the trial, demand the pastors' immediate release, and press the Sudanese government to abide by its constitutional and international commitments to respect religious freedom for all," Swett said.

In 2015, the USCIRF called on the U.S. State Department to designate Sudan as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for its severe persecution of religious minorities, which has increased since South Sudan won its independence from Sudan in 2011.