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They said it was the best Christmas in 30 years. On Dec. 25 thousands of Sudanese filled the streets of Khartoum, welcoming not only the birth of Christ but also news that they could celebrate it openly.

President Omar al-Bashir outlawed public Christmas celebrations in 2011. Throughout a 30-year dictatorship, his Islamist-led government cracked down on Christian worship, confiscated church property, and jailed, tortured, and killed Christian believers. A civil war waged under Bashir’s command against the predominantly Christian south killed more than 2 million people.

This Christmas, church bells rang in the capital, businesses closed, and Muslims joined Christians in the streets after Sudan’s new leaders declared it a public holiday—a first since Bashir was ousted from power last April.

At St. Matthew’s Cathedral Church, the oldest church in Khartoum, a choir sang traditional African hymns before a sanctuary filled with worshippers of all ages. Many of them packed wooden pews facing the altar while others stood along balcony railings above. Outside, rows of chairs arranged by the entrance seated an overflow crowd.

Amna Azhari, an 18-year-old student at Khartoum University, told a reporter it was her first time to visit a church. She said, “I’m very optimistic and I feel not just the political change but I also feel that we as Sudanese, we are all changing positively.”

The holidays highlighted the seismic political changes for Sudan, the third-largest country in Africa and one of the largest in the Arab world. While other protest movements have risen only to falter, a street movement that began one year ago in Khartoum succeeded in overturning one of Africa’s longest-ruling dictators. A year later, a new transitional government is on the move to undo a restrictive Islamic government and replace it with a potentially secular democracy.

Read more at World Magazine 

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