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Rehman Chishti is the MP for Gillingham and Rainham, and was formerly the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief. Jeremy P. Barker is Director of the Middle East Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute.

On October 25, General Abel Fattah al-Burhan – who led a group of military officials in the unlawful arrest of Sudanese civilian officials, including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok – declared a state of emergency, the dissolution of the transitional cabinet and sovereign council, and the termination of the existing process of transition to civilian government.

While the military cut off internet and other communications across the country, thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets to make their voices heard, despite violence from military forces who killed at least seven and wounded nearly 150.

With a commitment to non-violence that has marked protests in Sudan, people filled the streets across the country. As communications are still restricted, some mosques across Khartoum were used to issue a call for “civil disobedience” that has continued across the country.

A military-led government imposed by force was not going to be accepted by the Sudanese who had seen tentative progress on fundamental freedoms since the ousting of brutal dictator, Omar al-Bashir, in April 2019 after his more than three decades in power.

As documented in a just-published Religious Freedom Institute report, Sudan – previously one of the world’s worst religious freedom offenders – has implemented substantial shifts in its religious freedom policy under the auspices of the new transitional government.

Furthermore, the death penalty was removed for apostasy violations, amendments were made to punishments for blasphemy, restrictions on hours of operation for Christian schools were removed, and Christmas was declared a national holiday.

The transitional government had committed to enshrining full religious freedom in the new constitution. Yet, with the demise of that government, it is vital that the international community stands with the Sudanese people immediately to ensure these positive gains are not lost.

While the changes remain fragile, they indicate something important is underway in Sudan. Since the fall of Bashir in 2019, the Sudanese people and some of transitional government figures have shown a determination to craft a political and cultural environment grounded in genuine respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Sudanese.

These improvements in fundamental rights, including a commitment to religious freedom for all, were instrumental in the decision by the United States in late 2020 to remove designations of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism and a country of particular concern for its international religious freedom violations.

With the attempted military coup led by Gen. Burhan these positive steps are now at risk.

As a statement released by the troika of the United Kingdom, United States, and Norway described, “the actions of the military represent a betrayal of the revolution, the transition, and the legitimate appeals of the Sudanese people for peace, justice, and economic development.

As news of the coup was breaking, Rehman Chishti (one of this article’s authors) raised concerns of the situation of religious freedom following the military takeover in an Urgent Question to the Vicky Ford MP, the Minister for Africa in the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office.

Along with condemnations, it is vital that the Sudanese people see the international community support respect for fundamental rights for all Sudanese for any investment and partnership with Sudan’s government and particularly its security forces.

Already the United States has frozen some $700 million in planned assistance, and the World Bank has suspended its aid to Sudan.

As next steps are considered, three vital areas of concern merit close attention.

Integration of human rights into security sector reform

As the events of this week demonstrated, the greatest threat to consolidating a civilian government that is respectful of fundamental freedoms is the outsized role security forces still play in Sudan’s politics.

The Sudanese military remains the one of the last bastion of Islamist support within the government, and the paramilitary rapid security forces also retain substantial influence over the near-term and long-term future of the country.

For any partnership to resume, the challenges of the security sector must be addressed.

Equip voices from across Sudan’s religious, ethnic, and regional communities

Just days before the coup took place, the newly resumed UK-Sudan Strategic Dialogue charted a path forward, with planned investments in education, drinking water, and elevating the voices of the Sudanese people, to include highlighting the role of women leaders who were vital in the 2019 revolution and political transition.

For long-term success in Sudan, there must be leadership that is accountable to voices from all sectors of society. Strong relationships across religious, ethnic, and regional lines will be integral in building a strong, stable Sudan that delivers for all of its people.

Multilateral approach

In his question to the UK Minister for Africa, Chishti urged the UK Government to work with the 32-member state International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which the United Kingdom joined as a founding member in 2019, along with the United States, to further religious freedom and advance Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on religious freedom.

As to engagement with Sudan and using the various levers the international community has – whether through the UN Security Council, the International Religious Freedom of Belief Alliance, the Arab League, or Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (as Sudan is also a member of both of these organisations) – the international community must apply all modes of influence at its disposal to exert pressure Sudan to abide by its previous commitments on freedom of religion or belief and respect for Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Now is not the time to look away.