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Sudan's Copts pray for a smooth election

The Sudanese Coptic Christian community is about three million strong but some now live outside of the country.

Their presence in the country dates back over 1,300 years and, because of their advanced literacy and numeracy, their role has been more significant than their numbers would suggest.

Last modified: 20 Apr 2010 06:48

As Sudan awaits the final results of the elections to be announced, Al Jazeera visited a neglected but an important section of the country's voters - the Sudanese Copts.

Sudan's Copts are a minority but they are known in Sudan for their good business sense. A lot of the businesses in Sudan are owned by Copts.

The Sudanese Coptic Christian community is about three million strong but some now live outside of the country.

Their presence in the country dates back over 1,300 years and, because of their advanced literacy and numeracy, their role has been more significant than their numbers would suggest.

When Gafaar Nimeiri, Sudan's former president, introduced "Islamic" law in September 1983, it began a new phase of repressive treatment of non-Muslims.

Although the Copts did not at first suffer the extremes, some felt threatened and that drove them to leave the country. But many decided to stay.

Al Jazeera spoke to Reverend Filotheos Farag, the priest of el-Shahidein Coptic Church in Khartoum and a member of parliment with the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). We spoke to him to find out how the Copts feel about the elections as they await the results.

Praying for peace

We attended Sunday morning prayers in el-Shahidein church. At first we were amazed by the amount of people of all ages, young and old who attended the prayers at 7.30am.

I admired their dicipline and their order. The men sat on one side and the females on the other side, but they all prayed side by side.

There were Sudanese Copts of all colours and some Ethiopian Orthodox Christians that do not have their own church took part in the ceremony.
Reverend Farag started the prayers by declaring how happy he was that the election period had passed peacefully and said they  accept the result no matter what the outcome may be because that is "democracy". He asked his congregation to join him in a prayer for Sudan.

There are some Sudanese Copts who stood in the elections for the parliament, including one woman.The Sudanese Copts are free to participate in any level in politics, but many choose to business instead.

According to the Reverend Farag, Sudanese Copts receive the same treatment as any other Sudanese.

"We feel like we are a section in Sudan that is rebuilding itself within Sudan, I belive that as Sudanese each section in Sudan's socity we are supposed to complete each other by integration and respect of the other.

"I have good relations with our Muslim brothers and sisters in Sudan, we do not feel religiously persecuted. We have a lot of liberty and freedom and we are free to practice our religious freedom.

"I am happy with the democracy and the elections, I understand that there has been some mistakes in the elections but it is all a matter of lack of organisation, rather than fraud. Mistakes can happen anywhere and everywhere in the world. I believe that the elections went well, I voted.

"I believe that democracy is coming to Sudan, we don't believe in changing people but we can aslo change the person itself, we have not changed Omar al-Bashir, the incumbent Sudanese president, but I am sure he will change," he said.

Although Sudan's Copts did not suffer heavy losses when Nimeiri introduced strict Sharia, there were some losses such as the killing of Majdi Mahjoub, who was killed after being found with dollars during a boycott of the US currency.

"It was not needed. The same governemnt that forbid the use of the dollar also allowed later the free trading that included the dollar," Reverend Farag said.

Sudanese unity

I also visited the Coptic club in Khartoum, which is a place exclusively for Copts, but Copts can invite non-members to come.

In the club they have sport facilities, resturant and a cafe. When we went we saw the club's basketball team that was largely made up off Southern Christian players.

There we met Salah Tadros Yacub, a prominent businessman who said being a Copt had never been a problem for him when conducting his business.

He said he does not belive that religion is an issue in Sudan and thinks that the real issues is "tribalism" and "ethnicity".

Yacub also belives that one will always find negatives and positives in life wherever you go but as a Copt their rights in Sudan are far better than the Copts in Egypt.

"We have more rights," he said.

He also belives that Sudan should stay united, he does not see how either party would be succesful if Sudan separated.

"We have to give peace a chance, it will take time after 50 years of civil war to trust each other again as Sudanese in the North and South, but it will happen with time," he said.

He is positive that things will be better, everybody has a positive and a negative but I hope that any negative that happened in the early days of the elections will be improved.

He voted, cutting his holiday short to cast his ballot on the last day.

"I feel proud that I took part in the election as a citizen, this is the second time I voted in my life and I hope that I will live to vote again in five years time."