A high-ranking U.S. State Department official has demanded that the Sudanese government put an end to the systematic confiscation and demolition of churches and mosques.
Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan reportedly said during a speech last Friday in Sudan's second largest city that in order for relations between the oppressive nation and the United States to improve, the county must do a better job of protecting free speech and religious expression.
"The government of Sudan, including the federal states, should also immediately suspend demolition of places of worships, including mosques and churches," AFP quoted Sullivan as saying in a speech at Al-Koran Al-Karim University in Omdurman.
As Sudan ranks as the fifth-worst county in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA, its government has gained a reputation for arresting Christians who have refused to give up control of their church properties to the government. A number of the churches in question have been destroyed by the government.
According to World Watch Monitor, Sullivan explained that the 2017 State Department International Religious Freedom report highlighted "instances of the arrest, detention, and intimidation of religious leaders," as well as "the denial of permits for the construction of new churches; restrictions on non-Muslim religious groups from entering the country; and the censorship of religious material."
Sullivan's comments occured during his two-day visit in Sudan in which he met with Sudanese officials and called for an improvement to the human rights situation in the predominantly Muslim country.
Sullivan's visit comes as the Trump administration formally lifted two-decade old economic sanctions against Sudan last month, a move that was criticized by many. Sullivan is the first member of the Trump administration to visit Sudan since the Sanctions were lifted in October.
Human rights and religious freedom advocates from around the world have long called out Sudan for its poor human rights record under President Omar al-Bashir. Activists have accused Sudanese authorities of not only detaining pastors and religious leaders but also political dissidents, human rights activists and journalists.
"The Islamic Republic of Sudan is waging genocidal war against the black, African marginalized people groups in Darfur, Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile State, and in the Nubian areas of North Sudan," Faith McDonnell, the religious liberty programs director at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion & Democracy, warned in a statement issued before the sanctions were lifted.
The New York Times reports that Sullivan said last Thursday that the U.S. is also weighing whether to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Sudan was designated a state sponsor of terror in August of 1993. However, such a move is dependent upon the Sudanese government cooperating with U.S. officials.
According to The New York Times, Sullivan said the Trump administration's policies on Sudan are simply a continuation of the strategy carried out by the administration of former President Barack Obama and that the U.S. government will continue to work with Sudan toward the eventual removal of its designation as a state sponsor of terror.
In her statement, McDonnell warned that "the Obama policy has been one that has cast the regime's persecutors as morally equivalent with the persecuted and their defenders."
In a tweet, McDonnell warned that the U.S. would be foolish to remove Sudan as a state sponsor of terror.
"And the Islamist Republic of Sudan says it is 'ending' its relationship with the DPRK! And we are fools enough to believe them and John Sullivan at State fool enough to talk about taking them off the terror list!" she tweeted.
According to The New York Times, Sullivan explained that the Sudanese government has taken "positive steps" over the past year-and-a-half.
"There will need to be substantial progress on those matters, including political freedom, press freedom and religious freedom — those freedoms that are so important to us as Americans," Sullivan said.
Sullivan's trip to Sudan was part of a tour of foreign nations that lasted from Nov. 14–21 in which he was scheduled to visit France, Tunisia and Nigeria.