Churches have a long history of working for social justice both in Australia and overseas. The Commission for Mission supports people who are being persecuted or being treated unjustly in other countries as part of its international mission work.
When responding to an unjust situation in another country however, we rely on our network of organisations (both faith-based and secular), partner churches and others who have contacts on the ground. This work of the church can often go unnoticed, but is crucial to getting situations change.
According to Christian human rights organisation Middle East Watch, Sudanese Christians face intense pressures. Recognised Christian communities have increasingly been marginalised and their freedom to worship obstructed.
In recent years this has included confiscation or destruction of church property, forced closure of Christian-owned institutions, expulsion of expatriate Christian workers and the imprisonment of some church leaders on spurious charges. Public morality codes have also been used to charge and imprison those, including Christians, who are perceived to have acted with impropriety.
In December last year, Reverend Yat Michael, a Pastor in Sudan was arrested after preaching at a church in Khartoum where he was visiting. He was taken with no explanation and held in detention without access to family or lawyers.
In January this year, another South Sudanese pastor, Reverend Peter Yen Reith was visiting Khartoum and was also arrested by Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service agents. It appears that his arrest and detention were linked to a letter he sent to the Religious Affairs Office in Khartoum inquiring about Reverend Yat’s arrest. He too was detained.
Uniting Church members wrote letters for the release of two pastors thanks to the information provided by Middle East Concern. This Christian organisation gathers information about cases of Christian persecution in the Middle East and North Africa from churches and Christians in those locations. Amnesty International also issued an international letter-writing action on behalf of the pastors, seeking their release. Applying international pressure by writing letters has often proved powerful and is one of the many ways we as Christians are able to bring about change.
On 5 August, a judge in Khartoum ruled in favour of Pastor Yat and Pastor Yen Reith on all but a few of the charges against them and they were released from custody. Despite a ban on them being able to travel internationally, the two pastors were able to escape Sudan and travel to safety to an undisclosed country.
“This is great news for the Pastors and their families”, Dr Mark Zirnsak from the Commission for Mission said. “It is likely that the international attention on the case, including the letters sent from around the world, helped to see that justice was done in this case. We are grateful to all the Uniting Church members who took up the case and wrote letters.”