By Michelle Bauman
An expert on international religious freedom said religious hostility should be recognized as the motivation behind a recent Catholic church burning in Sudan.
The international media has “failed to see the religious dimension of this conflict” for years, said Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C.
Shea told CNA on April 23 that attacks on churches “have become a pattern in a growing number of Muslim areas.”
According to witnesses, a Catholic church in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum was torched by a mob of several hundred Muslims on the night of April 21.
The church had been attended by many Southern Sudanese Christians.
International media coverage of the event focused on political and economic disputes involving oil revenues and a poorly-defined border between the two nations, while remaining largely silent on the religious aspect of the conflict.
South Sudan – which is largely Christian – broke away from Sudan to become an independent country in 2011.
However, there is also a crucially important religious aspect to the tension, Shea explained.
She said that in countries including Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria, churches have repeatedly been bombed or torched in recent years, sometimes with Christian worshippers inside.
“There can be no more poignant symbol of religious persecution,” she said.
In the case of Sudan, Christians have “long been a target of extremist violence,” she added.
She explained that Christians in Sudan are targeted by “the radical government of General Bashir,” who had warned that religious diversity would not be tolerated in the country if South Sudan were to gain independence.
For almost 20 years, Khartoum – which imposes Islamic law in the north – has also attempted to forcibly apply sharia law on the primarily Christian south, she said, explaining that this development “triggered a rebellion that cost two million lives.”
Shea believes that understanding this religious dispute is critical to an accurate analysis of the ongoing conflict in the region.
“In misreading the message of the church burning in Khartoum,” she said, “the press demonstrates that the blind spot continues.”