Two Presbyterian pastors are facing a likely death penalty as their trial in the Republic of Sudan begins. The Rev. Yat Michael and the Rev. Peter Yen Reith of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church have been charged with espionage and blasphemy, though the church says they're being persecuted for their Christian faith, like other pastors in the Muslim-dominated country.
"This is not 'something new' for our church," says the Rev. Tut Kony, pastor of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. "Almost all pastors have gone to jail under the government of Sudan. We have been stoned and beaten. This is their habit to pull down the church. We are not surprised. This is the way they deal with the church."
Michael and Reith were initially detained without charge in December 2014 and again in January, the PC(USA) said on Tuesday. The church has reached out to human rights organizations asking them to speak out for the pastors and urge Sudan's government to respect religious minorities.
David Curry, CEO of Open Doors USA, said that the pastors, who are both married and have children, may be facing the death penalty.
"I'm fearful that they will execute these pastors for practicing their faith," Curry said, according to Fox News.
If not sentenced to death, the pastors could still face other harsh sentences, such as life imprisonment, or 40 lashes.
Sudan finds itself in sixth place in Open Doors' World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most persecution for their faith.
The Islamic government of Sudan famously sentenced Christian mother Meriam Ibrahim to death for marrying an American Christian citizen in 2014, but after much international pressure decided to acquit Ibrahim of the charges.
The Christian mother, who refused to deny her faith in Christ despite intense pressure by prison officials, has since moved to the U.S. and become a symbol of faith.
The PC(USA) has asked Christian to pray for Michael and Reith's release. It noted that Christians now make up only a tiny minority in Sudan and receive very little protection, as most followers of Christ stayed in or moved to South Sudan after it broke away in 2011.
A number of Catholic and Protestant churches in Khartoum have been destroyed or confiscated by authorities since South Sudan announced its independence, while Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has promised to make Sudan a "fully Islamic state operating under the strictest interpretation of Sharia Law."
Kony said, however, that Christians in Sudan continue trusting in God.
He said about the imprisoned pastors: "They have spent five months in jail and if it exceeds to a year we still know that God will intervene, and they will be released because they did not commit any crime."
Curry noted that life is getting more difficult for Christians in Sudan.
"This case in particular, we feel the charges are trumped up. These are just good citizens practicing their Christian faith, but the Sudanese government is using any tactic they can to push Christianity out of the market place and out of daily life, and unfortunately they are having some success," he said.