Sudanese priest arrested for kidnapping apostate

Khartoum, Sudan - A Sudanese Anglican priest has been arrested on charges of kidnapping a Muslim woman who came to his church wanting to convert to Christianity, clergymen said on Monday.

Police detained the Reverend Elia Kumundan on Sunday and held him along with at least four other people, one from another church, after the 23-year-old woman, who cannot be identified for security reasons, disappeared in March.

"The charges are kidnapping," said Sylvester Thomas Kambaya, provost of All Saints' Episcopal Cathedral in Khartoum.

"It seemed the church is being targeted because one of them ... told me that they thought we had helped her to hide or sponsored her ... to leave the country," he said.

Kambaya said it was not the first time church employees had been harassed by the authorities for accepting apostates.

Apostasy is a controversial issue within Islam. Some scholars say it is punishable by death while others believe in the freedom of religion.

Sudan, under Islamic sharia law since 1983, executed politician Mahmoud Muhammed Taha in 1985, accusing him of apostasy.

The Reverend Joseph Taban Lasuba said Kumundan had been arrested for trying to convert the woman to Christianity.

"They are very clever -- they will not come in the line of religion but it is always in the background," Lasuba said. "They know if they make it religious, the world is watching them," Lasuba said, adding he had been through similar experiences.

The clergymen said state security services had harrassed or even tortured converts in the past. Some had even been threatened with death by their own families and most had been forced to go into hiding or flee the country as the church was not able to protect them.

Police were not immediately available to comment.

Sudan's new constitution was created last year after a January 2005 peace deal ended two decades of war between the mainly Christian and animist south and the northern Islamist government. It enshrines freedom of religion.