Since South Sudan gained independence two years ago, the Sudanese government has not recognized the citizenship of nearly 500,000 Southerners still living in the north. Meanwhile, Sudan has implemented sharia Islamic law, which harshly impacts Christian Southerners.
"It is a potential recipe for disaster that after more than two years of discussions, half a million Southerners in Sudan remain stateless and vulnerable to severe religious freedom violations," USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett said in a news release July 9.
USCIRF is calling on the U.S. government and its allies to "increase their efforts to help Sudan and South Sudan resolve the status of their nationals residing in the other's territory."
"Southerners in Sudan are at a particularly grave risk," Lantos Swett said. "Furthermore, failure to finalize negotiations has left them vulnerable to expulsion."
The independence of South Sudan "must not be used as a justification for the denial of religious diversity and freedom in Sudan, or as a justification to delay progress on a resolution of the status of Southerners in Sudan," USCIRF said.
South Sudan has offered citizenship to Sudanese residents but the government of Sudan has not reciprocated.
Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the situation in Sudan should concern American Christians.
"Every one of our churches should be heartbroken, and driven to prayer, for our brothers and sisters in Sudan, as Jesus commands us to do," Moore said in a statement to Baptist Press. "They are heroically carrying the name of Christ, to the point of homelessness and peril of death.
"Our Sudanese brothers and sisters recognize what all of us should learn, that cross-bearing isn't mere metaphor," Moore said. "I commend the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom for calling attention to what's at stake here. Let's pray for and work for human rights and religious freedom in Sudan, and around the world."
Shannon Lewis, a Southern Baptist missionary in South Sudan, is praying for a spiritual awakening in the two countries.
"Our churches need to pray for the government leaders of both countries to make decisions based on Christ rather than their selfish initiatives. There are hurting people that have been running for years, trying to find peace and a place to call home," Lewis said.
"As Southern Baptists, we need to stand in the gap and ask God to resolve the statelessness in these countries and ask Him to speak to us regarding the ways we can become engaged to help," Lewis said.
Tiffany Lynch, a senior policy analyst at USCIRF, told Baptist Press that when a peace agreement was signed in Sudan in 2005, about 2 million people of South Sudanese origin were living in Khartoum and surrounding areas of the north, mostly displaced by the 20-year north-south civil war.
About 1.5 million South Sudanese have returned to their homeland, but others have chosen to remain in Sudan because they are married to a Sudanese individual, have integrated into the country economically or were born during the war and have grown up in the north.
Still others have not returned because South Sudan, as a new nation, is unable to absorb everyone who would return by providing them with resources and services such as education and health care.
In some cases, the Sudanese government has shut down the main passageway between the north and south, Lynch said, preventing would-be returnees from accessing South Sudan.
"So you have people who want to go back and just can't, and you have people who want to stay and continue their lives in Sudan," Lynch said. "Our concern is that these people want to stay in Sudan but Sudan is not providing them with the proper pathway to citizenship, which would allow them to stay there.
"Without that proper pathway, they have great difficulties in gaining and maintaining employment, access to some sort of residency. In addition to general human rights conditions, we see this as a major concern," Lynch said.
The Sudanese government frequently has violated the rights of Southerners, USCIRF said, including firing all Southerners employed in government.
The vast majority of South Sudanese are Christian or animist, Lynch said, and the vast majority of Sudanese are Muslim. When South Sudan became independent, the Sudanese government saw no need to protect the religious freedom of Christians, she said.
As a result, churches during the past couple of years have been demolished by bulldozers or have received threats from government officials. Violence against Christian churches has been justified in the eyes of the government by the argument that those were South Sudanese churches, not Sudanese churches.
"In addition to the basic rights of employment, access to services like education and health care, access to land, individuals based on their human rights should have the right to freedom of religion or belief," Lynch said.
"That includes being able to worship, being able to go to churches and build churches, being able to educate themselves and their children in the religion of their choice," she said. "Those rights have been infringed upon not just for Sudanese Christians but in particular for South Sudanese Christians."
Morning Star News reported July 12 that a Sudanese Christian has fled the country after Sudanese officials roughed him up in Khartoum and threatened to kill him for not divulging the names of Sudanese Muslims who had converted to Christianity.
Apostasy is punishable by death in Sudan, but Morning Star News said Sudan has not executed anyone for that reason in nearly two decades. In 2011 and 2012, though, about 170 people were imprisoned and/or charged with the crime.
Another of USCIRF's concerns, Lynch said, is the threat that South Sudanese would be expelled from Sudan.
"We have not seen any mass expulsions, which we've been very pleased by, however we have seen increasingly sporadic efforts to arrest people, accuse them of Christian proselytization -- which is illegal in Sudan -- and then deport them to South Sudan," Lynch said. "So we haven't seen mass expulsions but we have seen this way around to expel people by claiming that they're proselytizing."
Last September, Sudan and South Sudan -- in a Joint High Level Committee -- agreed to move forward on citizenship negotiations, which were to focus on providing freedom of residence, movement, economic activity and property. No progress has been made, USCIRF said, and the agreement itself contains several concerns.
The agreement lacks a blanket statement that each nation must protect against statelessness, Lynch said. Also, the agreement says the four freedoms in focus as well as other freedoms must comply with national laws.
"The Sudanese government is a gross violator of religious freedom and a lot of it is because of its legal structure, which promotes sharia law and Islamic law over everything else," Lynch said, adding that such laws automatically impact the rights of South Sudanese Christians.
USCIRF's Lantos Swett, in the July 9 news release, said, "It is imperative that the Joint High Level Committee not only fully resolves specific areas of concern from prior agreements, but also ensures that the final agreement includes an explicit protection from statelessness and respect for universal human rights, including religious freedom."
Citizenship negotiations, Lynch said, have been overshadowed by oil agreements in Sudan and South Sudan as well as in the international community. Because there have been no mass expulsions of South Sudanese, "nobody is focusing on the issue of statelessness," Lynch said.
"The Sudanese government is finding a way to expel people in a quiet manner and infringing upon the rights of individuals as they're doing that," Lynch said.
In other independence movements, international norms have recommended either dual citizenship or the rights of option, which means a person can choose to which nation he wants his citizenship to belong, Lynch said.
"That's what we've advocated for, so if South Sudanese are not going to be allowed dual citizenship, which they're not, then at the very least they should be allowed to choose whether they want to be Sudanese or South Sudanese," Lynch said. "The Sudanese are not allowing them to have that decision."
Sudan's treatment of Christians and other human rights violations have caused it to be designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. State Department since 1999.
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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