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Not all in northern Sudan embrace Islamic law

From Ben Wedeman, CNN
  • Sudan's president has pledged to strengthen sharia, or Islamic law
  • Many southerners equate sharia with slavery
  • Northern Sudan is diverse, though sharia enjoys support

Khartoum, Sudan (CNN) -- Many southerners are voting for an independent Sudan this week, thirsting for freedom from the north. They equate sharia or Islamic law that President Omar al-Bashir has vowed to strengthen with slavery.

Al-Bashir has declared that if Southern Sudan votes in favor of separation, sharia will become the main source of Sudan's Constitution, Islam the state religion and Arabic the official language.

Many in the north are embracing al-Bashir's pledge.

Newspaper publisher Al-Tayib Mustafa said he will be happy to see his nation break in two. Islam, he said, comes above all else.

"When the south goes, then the north will be Muslim," he said. "For a Muslim, unity is not as important as religion. Sharia is religion. Sharia is Islam."

But there are other faces of Islam in Sudan, including a Sufi community, and Mustafa's position is hardly shared by all Sudanese.

Some in the north consider themselves Arabs, others Africans. They speak a dozen different languages, and while a majority of people are Muslims, a significant number are Christians or practice traditional religions.

Sharia already is the law of the land in northern Sudan, but Sudanese authorities have relaxed its enforcement since 2005 when a peace treaty ended more than 20 years of civil war.

The war pitted a northern government of Arab Muslims against blacks in Southern Sudan who practice Christianity and animist religions. It killed 2 million people and displaced several million others, mainly from Southern Sudan.

The president's comments have stirred fear that the government will implement sharia for the hundreds of thousands of southerners and other non-Muslims in northern Sudan, including many who fled fighting, disease and famine in the south.

Even many Muslims find the imposition of Islamic law troubling, and it's even more disturbing for the small and ancient Christian community in the north.

"We as Christians, we feel that Christianity is a Sudanese religion and should be respected," said Bishop Ezekiel Kondo, who oversees Khartoum's Episcopal Church and chairs the Sudan Council of Churches.

Al-Bashir's vow to strengthen Islamic law came as a shock to Kondo.

"As a church we are not happy with what he said, and we feel as the president -- he is the president for everyone in the country -- he knows very well that there are other religious communities."

But Mohammed Othman Salih, secretary-general of the Sudanese Muslim Clerics Council, brushed aside such concerns.

"The Islamic sharia guarantees the rights of non-Muslims better than secular laws," he said. "Why? Because it's an issue of a religious duty, and they are human rights sanctified by God almighty."