By BosNewsLife Africa Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
KHARTOUM, SUDAN (BosNewsLife)– Two South Sudanese pastors who faced the death penalty on controversial charges of espionage and other crimes have been freed, but authorities do not allow them to leave Sudan, Christians told BosNewsLife.
Yat Michael, 49, and Peter Reith, 36, were stopped at Khartoum Airport Thursday, August 6, and told that a travel ban issued against them in March remained in force, rights activists said. Their lawyer has appealed against the ban.
The travel ban came as a setback for the pastors, who were released this week after nearly eight months in prison.
They were held on several charges, including espionage, undermining the constitutional system, promoting hatred amongst sects, breach of public peace and offences relating to insulting religious beliefs. The espionage and constitutional charges carry the death penalty or life imprisonment in case of a guilty verdict.
However the court ruled Wednesday, August 5, that both men could be released on time served, amid international pressure. Rights activists had linked the charges to their Christian activities in this heavily Islamic nation.
Both men were detained in December 2014 and January. Since being moved to the maximum security Kober Prison in June, the pastors had
not been allowed visits from their families or legal team, despite repeated appeals, said advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
The pastors could only consult with their lawyers briefly prior to court hearings, according to trial observers.
However, on August 3 Reith was reportedly permitted to phone his lawyer saying that although he was suffering
from malaria and a chest infection, his condition had “somewhat improved”.
In published remarks Michael later said he was pleased to have been freed. “I am feeling free because I was in jail for many months.
I have become like I’m born again.”
Even if they will be allowed to return to South Sudan, other Christians will still face persecution, cautioned human rights officials
“Though the pastors have been released, persecution among Christians persists,” said Ann Buwalda, director of Jubilee Campaign USA.
“During the years following South Sudan’s independence more than 200 expatriate Christians were deported from Sudan, most of them to South Sudan,” she told BosNewsLife.
“In addition, the government of Sudan has stated that it will not allow new churches to be built nor will it offer new land for the churches that have been destroyed. The government has continued to confiscate the land of churches and arrest believers.”
In one of the latest known incidents a dozen Christian women were reportedly detained in front of their church as they were
leaving a worship service in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, for wearing trousers and skirts in public.
The women were aged between 17 and 23 and are from the Nuba mountains, an area that borders South Sudan, several Christians said.
The group was reportedly charged under article 152 of the criminal code that prohibits “indecent dress”. “Although we count the release of the pastors as a victory, we must continue praying for Christians in Sudan as persecution worsens,” Buwalda added.