By Lesley Wroughton
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - The United States has raised the issue of religious freedom in talks about easing sanctions on Sudan, the new head of the U.S. Agency for International Development said in Sudan on Tuesday.
The head of the agency, Mark Green, held the talks with senior Sudanese officials as the U.S. government weighs whether to ease or extend the 20-year-old sanctions, a decision that must be made by Oct. 12.
"We have asked questions and ... have received assurances," Green told reporters after a meeting with Sudanese Prime Minister Bakri Hassan Saleh.
While human rights and religious freedom are not conditions for the permanent lifting of some Sudan sanctions, the U.S. government is increasingly raising them as a concern.
Religious leaders have complained that churches have been bulldozed by the government and priests arrested, stoking fears among Christians that they will not be able to practice their faith in majority-Muslim Sudan.
During his three-day visit to Sudan - the first by a senior U.S. official since 2005 - Green met with various religious organizations, including churches and religious freedom lawyers.
In his meetings on Tuesday, Green said he had acknowledged "meaningful steps" by the government in complying with U.S. conditions for easing the sanctions. Among those conditions are improved humanitarian access for aid workers, counter-terrorism cooperation and a resolution of internal conflicts.
"The government is continuing a gradual reversal of long-standing impediments," Green said, "and I urge the government to accelerate its work in this regard."
Earlier, Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour said his country was looking forward to normal ties being restored.
"On our side we look forward for a normalization of our relations with an important country ... the U.S.," said Ghandour, who has overseen dialogue with Washington on the sanctions.
Easing the sanctions could suspend a trade embargo, unfreeze assets and remove financial restrictions that have hobbled the Sudanese economy.
The North African country wants to regain access to the global banking system, potentially unlocking badly needed trade and foreign investment. It needs both to cope with an inflation rate of 35 percent and a shortage of foreign currency that has crippled its ability to buy abroad.
A decision on the sanctions was delayed for six months to give Sudan more time to make progress on key demands and to give the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump time to settle in.
Lifting them would be a major turnaround for the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who once played host to Osama bin Laden and is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of orchestrating genocide in Darfur.
Washington has not weakened its condemnation of Sudan's tactics in Darfur, and Sudan remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, alongside Iran and Syria.
Green told Reuters on Monday after visiting North Darfur state that humanitarian access had improved [nL8N1LE4RM].
In particular, aid workers have been allowed for the first time in seven years into Jebel Marra, a region of Darfur where clashes between the government and rebels persist, according to USAID reports.
While he acknowledged progress, Green emphasized on Monday that a final decision on sanctions was up to Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
"Certainly, there has been progress, particularly in recent weeks," Green said, "This is not a matter of whether things look perfect on the date that a decision is made, it's whether or not long-lasting changes have been made."
The United States first imposed sanctions on Sudan in 1997, including a trade embargo and blocking the government's assets, for human rights violations and terrorism concerns. The United States layered on more sanctions in 2006 for what it said was complicity in the violence in Sudan's Darfur region.
(Additional reporting by Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Larry King)