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Witnesses recount gunmen's raid on church in Sudan's capital

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises above buildings after an aerial bombardment in Khartoum North

By Maggie Michael

CAIRO (Reuters) -Over four terrifying hours last weekend, masked gunmen affiliated to one of Sudan's warring factions raided one of Khartoum's oldest churches, opening fire at church officials as they searched for cash, gold and women, two witnesses said.

The raid was one of many targeting homes, factories, banks and places of worship that residents have often blamed on the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which have been battling the army across greater Khartoum over the past month.

RSF fighters have spread out through many residential areas as the army has targeted them with air strikes and heavy artillery. Police have disappeared from the streets, leaving locals at the mercy of armed fighters and gangs.

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The RSF, which denied responsibility for the raid on the Mar Girgis (St. George) Coptic church, has said in statements its troops are working to protect civilians, and that those committing abuses are criminals who have stolen RSF uniforms.

The attack at the church in the Masalma neighbourhood of Omdurman, across the Nile from Khartoum, began shortly before midnight on May 13.

The witnesses described the attackers as in their late 20s, with at least one non-Arabic speaker. They wore scarves across their faces leaving only their eyes uncovered, and mismatched clothing including some items of RSF uniform, the witnesses told Reuters by phone.

The gunmen sprayed bullets at a priest, nuns, and sextons, wounding five of them, said the two witnesses, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.

"They shouted, 'Where is the gold? Where is the money? Where are the dollars?'" one witness said. They also insulted the church leaders and workers saying, "You are Egyptians, sons of dogs", calling them infidels, and telling them to convert to Islam.

Just over 5% of Sudan's 46 million population is estimated to be Christian, split into 36 denominations, according to data from the Pew Research Centre and the Sudan Council of Churches.

Sudan's Coptic church is part of the Egyptian Coptic church headquartered in Cairo.

PRIEST THREATENED WITH DAGGER

During the attack, the assailants led the priest to his house at gunpoint and menaced him with a dagger, before seizing a safe that held gold and cash and stealing a car, the witnesses said.

They also vandalised the church offices and a sanctuary for Bishop Sarabamon, the top Coptic Church leader in Sudan, who was present during the attack and beaten with a chair and sticks but not recognised by the gunmen.

The church had an annex with elders and orphan girls, some of whom were hidden as the attack was unfolding.

The warring parties blamed each other for the attack. The army accused the RSF, while the RSF said in a statement that an "extremist" group affiliated with the army was responsible.

On Tuesday an Anglican church in Al Amarat district in Khartoum, which has seen heavy fighting, said it had been raided and "occupied" by RSF forces who stole a car and broke the doors of the church offices.

"We don't know what happened to the rest of the church's possessions," Ezekiel Kondo, archbishop of the Episcopal Anglican Church of Sudan, said in a statement on Facebook.

RSF fighters have also entered the Coptic church of the Virgin Mary in Khartoum, forcing staff to leave, according to a church employee familiar with the incident and social media posts by activists.

The RSF did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Anglican and Virgin Mary churches.

On Thursday, the same gunmen who attacked Mar Girgis returned to raid the apartments used by its priests, according to one of the witnesses who shared photos showing smashed doors, a broken safe, and scattered clothes and personal belongings.

Despite the repeated raids, the witness said he believed what happened was due to the general turmoil engulfing Sudan, not driven by sectarianism.

"I don't believe they are targeting the Christians as much as it's all chaos, chaos, chaos," he said. "They stormed houses of the Muslims as well. They are looting and stealing."

(Editing by Aidan Lewis, Daniel Wallis and Richard Chang)