By BosNewsLife Africa Service
KHARTOUM, SUDAN (BosNewsLife)– Two South Sudanese pastors jailed in Sudan’s capital Khartoum and could face the death penalty as part of a wider crackdown on evangelical Christians, trial observers say.
The trial of Yat Michael and Peter Yen (also named as David Yein Reith), who are held in the Omdurman prison, began May 19, BosNewsLife learned.
Christians say both men were detained during separate visits to Khartoum from their homes in South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011.
“On May 4, they were each charged with a series of offences, two of which—undermining the constitutional system and waging war against the state—carry potential sentences of the death penalty or life imprisonment if convicted,” said advocacy group Open Doors, which has closely followed the trial.
Michael was reportedly taken into custody on December 21 after preaching the Sunday morning sermon for the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) Khartoum Bahri congregation.
After the service, several men who identified themselves as officers from the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) took him away without further explanation, Christians said. The next day, security forces were seen going to Michael’s temporary home where they took some of his clothes and personal belongings.
They reportedly told his wife that he was being held in relation to an ongoing investigation, without providing more details.
Michael and his wife had gone to Khartoum to seek medical attention for their child. He had been asked to preach at a church during their visit, sources said.
The church in Khartoum where Michael preached has suffered pressure from government authorities over land rights, resulting in most of the church being destroyed in December of last year, rights activists said.
Yen was detained January 11 after delivering a letter to the Religious Affairs Office in Khartoum asking about his colleague Michael’s arrest in December, according to Christians familiar with the situation.
Both men belong to the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church.
Their lawyer said charges against them would be dropped, but Christians cautioned that the involvement of the NISS may produce a different outcome.
Nahmia Shaloka, a Sudanese lawyer who fled the country because of his human rights activities and now lives in the United States, said in published remarks that the NISS legal counsel will try to create a connection between Michael’s speech at the church and the charges filed against them.
“For me, there is no evidence,” Shaloka said. “So far the whole thing is to give their [the NISS] action legal justification. The NISS claims to have evidence, and this will be clear at the hearing on May 19.”
Rights group Amnesty International has said that the NISS is an agency that is essentially above the law.
While South Sudan has a largely Christian population, Sudan is predominantly Muslim. However, thousands of Southern Sudanese who fled to the north during the long civil war choose to remain. However several Churches trying to meet their needs have come under pressure in recent months.
Sudan’s Minister of Religion, Shalil Abdullah, has said that the authorities would not issue permits for the construction of new churches as part of wider policy that involves promoting Islamic values.