Mohammed Khidir Khalil Hassan, a Sudanese convert from Islam, has to be careful what songs he sings to his sons.
Nearly a year ago, after his wife left him and Christianity behind, a Sudanese court had ruled that as a convert from Islam he was forbidden to see his children, then ages 3 and 5. An appeals court overturned the ruling last October and allowed him visits, but he knows any pretext could be used to keep him from them.
During one recent visit, one of the boys asked him to sing a Christian praise song entitled "Hosanna," but he refrained – knowing his ex-wife and her Muslim family could use that as evidence that he was trying to convert the children to Christianity and automatically cancel his visitation rights.
"I see no freedom at all," he said, pointing out that his ex-wife and her mother closely monitor his visits. "Such a system needs to be confronted. We have to decide to work for change in Sudan."
A Sudanese court had ruled in March 2012 that his wife, as a member of "the popular religion," be awarded custody of the children. His wife had presented a copy of a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees certificate showing Khalil's testimony as a Christian, as they had obtained asylum in Egypt from religious persecution in Sudan. The certificate was proof enough for a Sudanese judge to rule that the marriage be annulled and the children handed over to the spouse professing Islam.
The ruling perhaps reflects the prevailing anti-Christianity hostility in the air since South Sudan seceded in July 2011. Harassment, violence and arrests of Christians have intensified since largely Christian South Sudan seceded and President Omar al-Bashir vowed to root the country more deeply in sharia (Islamic law).
Hassan now visits the boys twice a month, Friday and Saturday of the first and second week for four hours each.
"What surprises me is that my wife denied that she was or has ever been a Christian before, yet we had a Christian wedding and during the birth of our first born, women from the Dinka community came to celebrate with us, as well as offering to us Christian prayers," he said.
Khalil, who converted to Christianity in 2001, had met Manal Hassan in 2007. At that time she said she was neither a Christian nor a Muslim. The bride's Muslim family learned that Khalil was a Christian but had no objection to the marriage, he said.
By 2010 the couple had joined an undisclosed church and had become visibly active in it; opposition from their families grew, and after threats from them and others intensified, the couple fled to Egypt in January 2011. Hassan and his young family obtained asylum as refugees in Egypt, and he was heartened that his wife was attending church with him.
In August 2011, his Muslim mother-in-law visited them in Egypt. Without his knowledge, she took his wife and children back to Sudan, he said. Hearing nothing from them, on Christmas Day 2011 Khalil decided to return to an undisclosed town in Sudan to search for them. He was shocked to discover that his wife had filed for divorce on grounds that she was a Muslim and he a Christian.
A Sudanese court had granted her custody of their two sons and forbade him to see them, he said.
"How does she deny the house of Christian marriage after four years?" Hassan said. "I am happy that people have known of my Christian conviction in Sudan, and I am ready to stand to the end. When the churches in Sudan are being destroyed, I tell my brothers and sisters that we need to come out boldly, but many shy off."
Silence, he said, is not the answer; he said Sudanese Christians need to confront but in a peaceful manner.
"I will continue working for freedom for my children and for change in Sudan," he said. "Some of my brothers and sisters did nothing, but yet they were jailed. We need to reflect the life and the truth of Jesus."