JUBA, South Sudan (Morning Star News) Khartoum state authorities in Sudan demolished a church building yesterday (May 7) as Christians were preparing to worship, sources said.

In the Khartoum suburb of Soba al Aradi, which began as a refugee camp for south Sudanese, a bulldozer sent by Jebel Aulia locality and the Ministry of Planning and Urban Development arrived at block 7 at about 2:30 p.m. and destroyed the Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) building, they said.

Authorities had notified church leaders of the impending demolition just a week prior. The church building was one of at least 25 the Sudanese government designated for destruction last year. The government reportedly claimed the churches were built on land zoned for residential or other uses, or were on government land, but church leaders said it is part of wider crack-down on Christianity.

Established in 1989, the building in Soba al Aradi was used by three congregations as it was the only one left in the area following the demolition of 12 area church buildings beginning in 2011. It included two offices for women’s and youth ministries, as well as a room for Sunday school classes.

Christians in Sudan complain that the Islamist government of Omar al-Bashir is targeting their buildings while favoring Muslims and their mosques.

“There is a nearby mosque in the area where the church building was destroyed, but it was not demolished,” said a source who requested anonymity.

Christian lawyer Demas James described the move as a serious violation of constitutional and international conventions of human rights. Writing on Facebook, he said the fact that the building was destroyed on a Sunday shows the government’s lack of respect for Christian holy places.

“You can see there is no place for worship left now for the believers to worship,” he wrote.

Riot police and personnel from Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) arrested SCOC members Bulis Salah and Naji Abdalla for refusing to open the church gate. They were taken to NISS offices, interrogated, and then released later that day.

A June 13, 2016 letter from the Executive Corporation for the Protection of Government Lands, Environment, Roads and Demolition of Irregularities of Khartoum State reveals the names and locations of 25 church buildings marked for demolition, most of them in the Sharq al Neel (East Nile area) locality of Khartoum North. The government claimed the churches were built on land zoned for other uses.

The Rev. Yahia Abdelrahim Nalu, moderator of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church’s (SPEC) Sudan Evangelical Synod, has told Morning Star News the subsequent order was part of a systematic attack on churches by the Islamist government.

The order targets a wide range of denominations, from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal.

The Sudan Council of Churches denounced the order at a Feb. 11 press conference, calling on the government to reconsider the decision or provide alternative sites for the churches. The Rev. Mubarak Hamad, chairman of the Sudan Council of Churches, said at the conference in Khartoum that mosques located in the same area were spared from the demolition order.

Hamad said the order was aimed at 27 church buildings, including the SCOC building in Soba al Aradi and one belonging to the Presbyterian Church of Sudan in Jebel Aulia.

The order by Mohamad el Sheikh Mohamad, general manager of Khartoum state’s land department in the Ministry of Physical Planning, urged that it be implemented immediately. Among the 25 church buildings listed are three located on public playgrounds; the rest are located in residential areas, according to the order.

Sudan since 2012 has bulldozed church buildings and harassed and expelled foreign Christians, usually on the claim that the buildings belonged to South Sudanese. The Sudanese Minister of Guidance and Endowments announced in April 2013 that no new licenses would be granted for building new churches in Sudan, citing a decrease in the South Sudanese population.

The government’s decision to issue no new church building licenses came after South Sudan seceded from Sudan in July 2011, when Bashir vowed to adopt a stricter version of sharia (Islamic law) and recognize only Islamic culture and the Arabic language.

After bulldozing a Lutheran Church of Sudan (LCS) building on Oct. 21, 2015, authorities in the Karari area of Omdurman demolished an SCOC building on Oct. 27, 2015 without prior warning, church leaders said. Local authorities said the SCOC building was on government land, a claim church leaders adamantly denied.

Karari officials in Omdurman, across the Nile River from Khartoum, reportedly authorized the demolition of the church building claiming it was built on government land allocated for a field. In the demolishing of the LCS church on Oct. 21, the local authorities said it was built on land allocated for business, though a mosque stands nearby.

Ethnic Nuba have long suffered discrimination from the Arab population and authorities of Sudan. The Nuba people have longstanding complaints against Khartoum, including neglect, persecution and forced conversions to Islam in a 1990s jihad.

Sudan fought a civil war with the south Sudanese from 1983 to 2005, and in June 2011, shortly before the secession of South Sudan the following month, the government began fighting a rebel group in the Nuba Mountains that has its roots in South Sudan.

Sudanese authorities on Feb. 17, 2014 demolished another SCOC church building in Omdurman without prior notice. Bulldozers accompanied by local police and personnel from NISS destroyed the worship building in the Ombada area of Omdurman, sources said.

On Aug. 24, 2014, NISS agents padlocked the building of the 500-member Sudan Pentecostal Church (SPC) in Khartoum, which housed the Khartoum Christian Center (KCC).

Due to its treatment of Christians and other human rights violations, Sudan has been designated a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. State Department since 1999, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended the country remain on the list in its 2017 report.

Sudan ranked fifth on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List of countries where Christians face most persecution.