Should a war criminal accused of mass murder and gruesome human-rights violations sit at the table with other trade partners of the United States?
This question is worth asking when it comes to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Currently wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, al-Bashir was somehow, remarkably, close to getting that chance.
Just prior to his departure from office, former President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13761, which allowed for U.S. sanctions on Sudan to be temporarily lifted. Those sanctions would then be lifted permanently this month if the Sudanese government continued to chart a path of supposed progress. The Obama administration was optimistically watching the Sudanese government’s efforts to cooperate with the U.S. on counterterrorism. They were also looking at Sudan’s efforts to maintain a ceasefire in some of the most conflict-ridden areas of the country, and supposedly improve access for humanitarian aid to flow to those who need it the most.
The problem is, human rights and religious freedom groups on the ground in Sudan are not seeing nearly the progress needed to lift the sanctions and offer al-Bashir a seat at the table. In fact, the government of Sudan has continually perpetrated unparalleled human rights abuses against civilians. In the Nuba mountain region, where many Sudanese Christians live, bombs have rained down on civilians, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Often facing brutal attacks and even death because of their faith, Sudan’s beleaguered Christians struggle to survive.
Sudan is ranked No. 5 on the Open Doors World Watch List, a list documenting the countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution because of their faith. It is not a surprise that Sudan ranks this high on a list that includes some of the most violent and egregious persecutors of Christians around the world. There is no room for freedom of expression in al-Bashir’s Sudan. Rule of law is nonexistent, and persecution reaches some of the most extreme levels seen around the world.
Open Doors, along with other organizations, is continually working with our local partners on the ground in Sudan. We are providing training for Sudanese Christians on how to survive severe persecution, while offering practical and spiritual support as well as trauma care to persecution victims.
As president and CEO of Open Doors USA, I am encouraged that the Trump administration has just pressed “pause” on the lifting of sanctions against Sudan. By taking this important first step of extending Sudan’s sanction review period and delaying the lifting of sanctions for at least the next 90 days, the administration now has an opportunity to carefully evaluate the situation in Sudan and push for real change in the areas of human rights and religious freedom.
Will President Trump take advantage of this opportunity to help vulnerable Christians in an area of the world that is all too often ignored?
While it is impossible to predict the next course of action with Sudan, we have heard some positive words about international religious freedom from this administration. On May 11, Vice President Pence spoke at a Washington gathering of leaders aimed at addressing the situation of persecuted Christians around the world. Pence “reaffirmed the president’s commitment to defending Christians and, frankly, all who suffer for their beliefs across the wider world,” adding that President Trump has “made it clear that America will stand by followers of Christ in this hour of need.” The vice president added that the “administration is fully committed in bringing relief and comfort to believers not only across the Middle East but across the world.” Last week’s announcement of the swift move to nominate Samuel Brownback as ambassador at large for international religious freedom is another positive sign of this administration's commitment to the fight for religious freedom. Brownback has extensive experience in the region and, specifically in Sudan, as a result of his work during the Darfur crisis.
We all know these words are useless unless action follows. The U.S. must hold regimes that brutally persecute Christians and other religious groups accountable, refusing to offer them a seat at the table until change has truly been made.
If the Trump administration is truly attuned to the horrific reality unfolding in Sudan, they will do more than pause to evaluate; they will say “no” to lifting sanctions until Sudan does the important work they need to do in the area of human rights. As this window of opportunity steadily draws to a close over the next 90 days, I am hopeful President Trump will take crucial action to help Sudan’s vulnerable Christian community and all those who face persecution simply because of their faith.
David Curry is the president and CEO at Open Doors USA, a global advocate for persecuted Christians that works in the most restrictive and oppressive countries for Christians.