Sudan and the suppression of freedom

July 31, 2019

In February of this year, Omar al-Bashir declared a year-long state of emergency in the wake of escalating, nationwide protests calling on him and his regime to step down. Commentators rightly interpreted Bashir’s declaration as providing the mechanism whereby the forceful crackdown on revolutionary protests and demonstrations could be achieved, and the suppression of freedom legitimized. However, in an unexpected turn of events, Bashir was forced out of office by the Sudanese Armed Forces on April 11. The military coup was reportedly led by those closest to him. Bashir, who himself seized power in a 1989 military coup, was on the verge of pushing for constitutional amendments that would have allowed him to seek a third term.

Though initially in response to a rise in the price of bread, the protests that resulted in Bashir’s removal came to represent the collective outcry of the Sudanese people against decades of oppression, violence, and human rights violations. 

Under Bashir and the ruling National Congress Party, restriction on free thought and expression was normative—particularly ideological sentiments that criticized and diverged from that of the ruling party. Various forms of media had been censored, newspapers had been confiscated, and journalists and critics had been detained (in some instances, tortured).[1]

Why a civil society is good

Scholars have argued that one of the effects of a vibrant civil society is the checking of state power and the resisting of corrupt authoritarian rule.[2] In other words, civil society spaces create the conditions in which democratic ideals and principles can be developed. They constitute the arena where citizens, apart from government influence, can individually and collectively engage in the work of imagining alternative sociopolitical forms of life. To be sure, not all facets of civil society are directly concerned with governmental affairs. However, many aspects of civil society give substantive attention to topics that reflect on governmental leadership—like morality, behavioral norms, and authority, for example. Religious communities fulfill the definition of that facet of civil society in which the central mission and organizing principles are wholly other and distinct from statecraft. Yet, it is within religious communities in general, and churches in particular, where citizens have a tendency to talk not only about personal change, but societal change as well. It is no wonder, then, that the status of religious freedom in Sudan remains poor.

Restricting religion 

In its 2019 report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom redesignated Sudan as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). In October 2018, it was reported that 12 Christians were arrested from a local church in Darfur. Nine of those arrested were detained for five days, beaten, and subjected to other measures of torture. Of those nine, eight detainees were released only after they denounced their Christian faith and announced conversion to Islam. The remaining detainee, a priest, was charged with apostasy after refusing to return to Islam. He was released on bail the next day.[3]

In February 2018, it was reported that an evangelical church building belonging to the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church was demolished. Though the official charge cited complaints of public disturbances, other reports indicate that the land was desired for Muslim business interests. The 29-year-old church building was one of 27 churches that the Sudanese government identified as soon to be demolished (two of which were demolished in 2017). Since 2014, the Sudanese Minister of Guidance and Religious Endowments has refused to issue permits for the construction of new church buildings. 

The future of freedom 

As of today, a Transitional Military Council (TMC) has taken power in Sudan for a stated period of up to two years. However, street protests continue as demonstrators insist that the military rulers immediately transition to a civilian-led government. The United States has also weighed in on the process, with the following statement being released by the State Department on May 8, relaying details of a conversation between Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan and the Chairman of Sudan’s TMC, General Abdel Fattah el-Burhan: 

The deputy secretary expressed support for the Sudanese people’s aspirations for a free, democratic, and prosperous future. He urged the TMC to move expeditiously toward a civilian-led interim government. . . Finally, he reiterated the United States’ expectation that the TMC respect the human rights of all persons, and encouraged the TMC to allow peaceful protest and freedom of expression consistent with Sudan’s human rights obligations.[4]

The last statement by the deputy secretary is particularly important, given the United States’ consideration of removing Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SST) as part of a path toward normalization of relations. With Bashir officially removed from power, it will be important to monitor whether the transitional process proceeds in a truly free and democratic direction. Washington has asked the country to expand its efforts to combat terrorism, facilitate access to humanitarian aid, and promote human rights and freedom of religion and press. These changes now appear to be within reach. However, the most recent reports on the region indicate that the current standoff between the transitional military and the protest leaders has come down to whether Islamic Sharia law will be the basis for legislation in the future Sudanese government. For now, the road to Sudanese freedom remains promising. 


  1. ^ Part of this article has been adapted from a formal testimony given before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee (Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organization). For the full testimony, see: https://erlc.com/resource-library/issue-briefs/congressional-testimony-protecting-civil-society-faith-based-actors-and-political-speech-in-sub-saharan-africa
  2. ^ For an analysis of civil societies on the continent of Africa, see, Ebenezer Obadare, ed., The Handbook of Civil Society in Africa(New York: Springer, 2014). 
  3. ^ See, http://www.acjps.org/sudan-9-victims-of-torture-forced-to-announce-to-islam/
  4. ^ See, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/05/291554.htm 

Steven Harris

Steven Harris holds a B.S. in Religion from Vanderbilt University, an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, an M.A. in Religion from Yale University, and is currently a PhD student in the Study of Religion at Harvard University. He previously served as a Policy Director for the ERLC. Steven … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24