Stunned representatives of the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS) discovered during a March 15 trial hearing before the Khartoum Public Court that the United Al Azra Company had arbitrarily taken possession of their church headquarters and guesthouse, first confiscated at police gunpoint 10 months ago.
"The same day that we were at court," ECS interim provincial secretary Rev. Enock Tombe told Compass, "we learned that the company has moved into the building. They have put up a big signboard reading 'Cardinal.'"
After Tombe testified as a witness during last week's hearing, he asked the company's lawyers what they knew about this, questioning whether their clients had sold the property to still another company.
"They laughed and said this was not possible, because there is a court injunction," Tombe said. The attorneys then explained that Cardinal was one of many subsidiaries of the United Al Azra Company.
'WHY IS THE CHURCH COMPLAINING?'
Before last week's hearing began, ECS lawyer Aziza Ismail asked Judge Wahhabi Ibrahim what action had been taken to enforce the court injunction, in response to last month's court-ordered engineer's report. The report had confirmed that "extensive repairs" amounting to "a complete renovation" were being made on the property in blatant violation of the court injunction ordered last June.
"What is the problem? Why is the church complaining?" the judge reportedly asked.
"Your honor," the lawyer replied, "you are letting them trample on the court order. It has been ordered that nothing should be done on this building until you have made your ruling on the case."
Shrugging off the complaint, the judge commented, "Yes, that is the order of the court. But it is up to me to decide what to do with the fact that the law has been broken."
Judge Ibrahim brushed aside the church's request to post a guard at the property, declaring that they should not be worried, "Because in the end, you will get the building back in better shape than it was before!"
"We are just surprised that the courts here seem to have no authority over their own orders," Tombe told Compass.
Judge Ibrahim set April 4 for the next hearing in the trial, when defense lawyers will cross-examine Tombe, followed by the prosecution's second witness, ECS Bishop of Khartoum Ezekiel Kondo.
PROPERTY CHANGES CONTINUE
During the past month, the company occupying the church property has cut down the large tree in front of the outer wall and started parking cars in its place. "So it seems the guesthouse is now turned into an office," Tombe said.
According to recent notices appearing in Khartoum newspapers, the new Cardinal Company is advertising a technology specializing in natural building materials, using stones without cement or reinforcements for local construction.
DEFROCKED BISHOP RESPONDS TO COMPASS ARTICLE
Meanwhile, the defrocked Episcopalian bishop, who as a former minister under Khartoum's Islamist government, had orchestrated the illegal sale of the church's property wrote a lengthy letter published in the daily Khartoum Monitor on March 6.
Gabriel Roric's statement came in response to the Monitor's front-page publication of a Compass article on February 26 under the headline, "Anglicans Struggle to Regain Church Headquarters."
Claiming that the article had "misled the Sudanese general public," Roric identified himself as presiding archbishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church of the Sudan (RECS). Roric insisted that the "so-called guesthouse" was in fact the property of the RECS, stating he himself had raised the funds for its purchase and it was initially registered in his name.
RORIC SIDESTEPS QUESTION OF SALE
Defending the government of Sudan as a "neutral body" in the controversial case, Roric claimed that it "has not been and is not involved" in church affairs. Ever since the ECS guesthouse was confiscated on May 20 last year, the Khartoum regime has told the international community that it was an "internal church problem" misrepresented by ECS leaders.
"Roric is defending the government, but he is not responding to the question as to whether he sold the building to this company," Tombe noted. "They completely stayed away from that subject." Instead, Roric's letter tried to discredit ECS leaders in rambling accusations linked to the Anglican communion's worldwide rift over the theological issue of homosexuality.
Although the ECS had opened a court case to regain their property on May 22, 2004, two days after they had been evicted, formal judicial proceedings on the confiscation remained stalled until last month.
Lord George Cary, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, focused attention on the case two months ago, during an audience with Sudanese First Vice President Ali Osman Taha.
With five million members, the ECS is the largest Christian church in the Sudan. Over the decade preceding the historic peace agreement signed between the government and the Southern rebel movement this January, the Khartoum regime had followed a repeated pattern of aggression against Episcopal churches, schools and other institutions across Sudan.