Sudanese Christians celebrate first public Christmas in a decade

Banned by Omar Al Bashir after the Christian majority south seceded in 2011, December 25 was declared a public holiday for the first time in nearly 10 years

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In another sign of the major shifts taking place in Khartoum since the removal of long-time autocratic leader Omar Al Bashir, Christians in the capital gathered to mark the first Christmas as a public holiday in nearly 10 years.

People took to the streets of the capital and church bells rang out in the capital of the officially Muslim country that’s former leader became known for fuelling ethnic and religious tensions in the diverse nation after he seized power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989.

He waged wars against mainly Christian and animist rebel groups in the country’s south, confiscated church lands and property.

Al Bashir’s policies earned Sudan a place on the United States government’s list of nations that severely violate religious freedoms. But that label was dropped by Washington earlier this month as the country undergoes major reforms under a new joint military-civilian transitional government.

The US State Department said it upgraded Sudan to a special watch list for religious freedom, citing “significant steps taken by the civilian-led transitional government.” The State Department praised the new government for its efforts “to address the previous regime’s systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

Sudan cheered the move as the latest sign of warming ties with the US, as it seeks to persuade American officials to remove Sudan from a far more serious blacklist: state sponsors of terrorism. The designation subjects Sudan to sanctions, hindering the new government’s attempts to relieve its debt crisis and attract foreign investment during its fragile transition to democracy.

Sudan’s Minister of Religious Affairs Nasser Al Din Mufrah welcomed Washington’s “important step,” saying his government was working hard to restore religious freedoms. “We will proceed in the direction of promoting recognition, respect and protection for all rights,” wrote Al Din Mufrah in a message on his Facebook page.

Mr Al Din Mufrah announced this week that December 25 would be a public holiday to mark Christmas Day.

The holiday was cancelled by Al Bashir after the Christian-majority south succeeded in 2011.

Mr Al Din Mufrah gave an address on Wednesday to apologise for the policies of the former regime and promising that the transitional government was aiming to build a more equal society.

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on Christmas Eve tweeted a photo with prominent activist Natalina Yacoub and said that he seeks to build a Sudan “That respects diversity and enables all Sudanese citizens to practice their faith in a safe and dignified environment.”