The church bells rang in Khartoum on Wednesday as Sudan marked Christmas as a public holiday for the first time in 10 years.
Thousands of Sudanese Christians celebrated in the streets of the capital, where they were joined by activists sending a message of co-existence, as well elsewhere in the country, including rebel strongholds in the southern Nuba mountains.
The holiday was announced by Sudan’s civilian cabinet, which has spoken about improving religious equality after decades of rule that sidelined minorities.
This time is special, not like previous years,” Simon Kunda, a 16-year-old student from the Nuba Mountains, told Middle East Eye.
“It’s peaceful, enjoyable and very special that Sudanese youth from different religions are celebrating together.”
Public Christmas celebrations had been cancelled by former President Omar al-Bashir since the secession of Christian-majority South Sudan in 2011.
He was ousted in April after months of protests by a popular movement that advocated for greater equality in Sudan among ethnic and religious groups.
Bashir was accused of building an Islamist-focused state around an Arab elite that dominated and sidelined other groups in the diverse country and faced resistance throughout his rule from rebel groups that advocated for a secular state.
“Our message to the Sudanese is let’s just be humans and regain our humanity.”– Bishop Emanuel Bernardino
At Khartoum’s oldest church, St. Matthew’s, which sits by the Nile river, thousands of Christians celebrated by singing, dancing and chanting revolutionary slogans and praise for Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
Some said this was the first time they had been allowed to celebrate publicly since South Sudan’s independence.
“I’m so happy today because the situation is improving, and it’s really good for us that it’s an official holiday for the Sudanese – not just for the Christians,” said Nyaball Ezikel, a South Sudanese woman living in Khartoum, who described it as the best Christmas in the 30 years since Bashir took power.
“This is also a good step towards the unity of the Sudanese people,” Ezikel said.
A new era
Many of those celebrating, both Christians and Muslims, hoped the holiday would mark a new era that healed some of the divides that had grown in Sudan.
Sudan was recently removed from a United States blacklist for countries considered the worst violators of religious freedoms.
“We want today to pray for the victims of the wars in Sudan and to pray for everyone who felt any kind of injustice in the past period, and we pray for the great revolution to achieve its goals,” said 25-year-old Sudanese Christian, Ball Basbar.
Activists celebrating with them chanted slogans about equality and unity and criticised the politicised Islam of Bashir’s rule.
Khartoum University student Amna Azhari, 18, told MEE that it was her first time visiting a church,
“I’m very optimistic and I feel not just the political change but I also feel that we as Sudanese, we are all changing positively,” she said.
“We are becoming more tolerant and loving towards each other. This is the legacy of our great revolution.”
Sudanese Religious Affairs minister Nasr Aldin Mufarah delivered an address apologising to Sudanese Christians for discrimination under Bashir and promising that the new transitional period would build a more equal Sudan.
During Bashir’s rule, Sudanese Christians witnessed their land and churches confiscated and demolished, the detention and prosecution of religious leaders, as well as curbs on their religious activity.
A civilian cabinet was established as part of a power-sharing agreement with the military, which has remained influential since Bashir’s ouster, and has promised to grant greater religious freedoms, return confiscated lands and reinstate Sunday as an official holiday for Christians.
Emanuel Bernardino, the bishop of St. Matthew’s church, told MEE that the reinstated Christmas holiday had inspired Christians to celebrate it publicly.
“Our message to the Sudanese is let’s just be humans and regain our humanity,” he said.
“Christians and Muslims have participated in the revolution and in the change, regardless of their religion, colour or ethnic roots, and this is the best time to keep this spirit up.”
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