“People are proud to be Christians”

Sudan is the bridge between Africa’s Islamic north and black south – Recently a delegation of Aid to the Church in Need has visited the country. Only in 2016 the charity supported the church with almost half a million Euros

Sudden rumbles shatter the quiet of the evening. The Comboni priests stop eating to listen. They only continue with their evening meal when it becomes clear that the noise was caused by thunder and not by aerial bombs. “This country has gone through so many wars and military coups that you never know what is going on,” an elderly priest, who has been living in Khartoum since the 1950s, remarked. And then explained that, in those days, Sudan’s capital, located at the confluence of the White and Blue Nile rivers, was still a backwater on the edge of the Sahara. The city was made up of single-storey mud brick dwellings that made the city hardly distinguishable from the soil on which it stood. The only architectural exceptions were some churches and the administration buildings that were still left over from Anglo-Egyptian colonial times. This all came to an end in 1956 with national independence. Since then, the country’s development has closely followed that of so many post-colonial countries, including the extreme social inequality and the urban-rural divide. The glittering high rises of glass only serve to accentuate the stark contrast to the misery being suffered by other parts of the population. As the plane begins its descent to the airport located in the middle of the city, the tin roofs of the shanty towns blaze in the relentless glare of the summer sun.

Hundreds of thousands moved to the capital from rural areas in their search for a better life and are now carving out a meagre existence at its fringes.

President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has ruled the country since 1989, which in and of itself is already a feat. The period when rival fractions of the army regularly staged coups against each other – the source of the trauma of the priests gathered for their evening meal – ended with this last coup. At least in Khartoum. Because even after almost thirty years of al-Bashir’s government, peace is practically unheard of in the country. Turmoil reigns in every corner of this multi-ethnic state, caused by ethnic conflicts, struggles over the distribution of oil, pastureland and other resources as well as religious tensions. The east was embroiled in conflict up until a few years ago, when an agreement was reached by Khartoum and the Eastern Front. In the south, the government is regularly dropping bombs on opposition groups in the South Kordofan region. And in the west, in Darfur, the conflict cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives. An international arrest warrant has been issued for al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the government in this region. Amnesty International claims to have evidence that the government army even used chemical weapons against the people during the last year.

However, the bloodiest conflict is currently taking place there, where Sudan’s black south once was. After South Sudan gained independence in 2011, the youngest country in the world descended into a bloody civil war. Warring ethnic groups – the Nuer and Dinka people – began to wage war against each other with what was at times inhumane brutality. Until just recently, the country was at the very brink of a hunger catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of refugees pushed back north, which they had left because they felt they were being discriminated against on the basis of skin colour and religion. Many Arab North Sudanese still call the black people of the south, regardless of whether they are Christians or followers of one of the African religions, “abd”, or slave. And many were practically enslaved in the north. Christian human rights groups pressured the US government to step in for the independence of South Sudan. And that is what happened.

This is why Sudan, once Africa’s largest territorial state, is now just a torso. Now that the south has gained independence, the north has become even more Arab, even more Muslim. There are only a few native Christians in the more than 90 per cent Sunni north. They come from the sub-Saharan Nuba Mountains in the southern part of what is today North Sudan or from the state of Blue Nile. The rest are descendants of Egyptian or Levantine immigrants from the time when the Arab world knew no borders. Most of the Christians living in the north come from the south. Their situation in the north is extremely precarious because they lost their citizenship through the secession of the south.

The Roman Catholic church is the largest of the churches. It gained a foothold in the 19th century, scattering the Seed of the Word in an uncultivated field. Because after centuries of Islamic hegemony, nothing but ruins were left of the Christian kingdoms that had once existed on Sudanese soil for hundreds of years, beginning in Ancient times. Meanwhile, the British colonists tried to avoid religious tensions between Muslims and Christian missionaries and diverted the Christian missionary efforts to the south. They supposedly even had the grave of Daniele Comboni destroyed to prevent a pilgrimage.

Historically, the form of Islam practiced in the north is not considered a radical one. “My aunt is Muslim. But she always slaughters a pig for me on Christmas,” a Catholic cleric from the Nuba Mountains remarked, describing the religious tolerance one sees in day-to-day life. In general, Sudan does not seem to have a fanatic Islamic population. The veils of the women are often carelessly draped. The people, it seems, have enough to do with organising their daily lives and survival that they are not worrying about the observance of Sharia law in every aspect of their daily lives. A severe economic crisis has shaken the country, largely due to the secession of the south. The secession cost Khartoum 75 per cent of its oil revenue, about 30 per cent of the overall national budget. This led to cuts in energy and food subsidies. A potential for unrest. Which is why the ever-present police state is being especially vigilant.

Meanwhile, Sharia has now become the law of the land all the way through to the penal code, which includes floggings and other corporal punishments. The renunciation of Islam is a capital crime. As is blasphemy or insulting the prophet and his companions. Sudan’s foreign policy may recently have become less aggressively Islamic – in the 1990s, terrorist leader Bin Laden stayed for some time in the country – but little has changed in its interior. However, as long as they are members of registered communities, non-Muslims can usually practice their faiths without constant harassment. But things are a little more difficult for the representatives of unregistered communities, such as the evangelical free churches. Just recently, Czech preacher Petr Jasek was pardoned by the president after being sentenced to 23 years in prison. The man had been accused of spying. In reality, though, it was because he had aggressively proselytised among Muslims – a red line. However, even registered churches are strongly discriminated against. The country is still a long way from the religious freedom guaranteed by the constitution. “Churches are being torn down each month,” a cleric said. “You never hear that about mosques. And if, then because they had to make room for a street and the mosque is rebuilt somewhere else.” Approval to build new churches is practically never granted. The church manages by using multipurpose buildings for divine services. The Catholic Church in particular despite massive discrimination is on fair terms with the government because of its charitable endeavours. Hospitals and more importantly schools relieve the burden of the state, making it more amenable to the concerns of the church. Especially prestigious schools are even attended by the children of ministry officials. This is not a disadvantage in a country where “friendship” is the underlying force of all things. This may be the reason why the state tolerates the large number of clerics from the south who lost their Sudanese citizenship through independence, transforming them into foreigners in the north. Visa-issues for foreign clergy remain a huge problem for the church though.

In spite of the many governmental restrictions, however, the church is actually its own worst enemy. Financially, the church is completely dependent on the support of the world church, the clergy is spiritually burnt out, tribal rivalries are often more important than communion in the body of Christ. “We are only at the very beginning of evangelisation here,” Archbishop Michael Didi of Khartoum confirmed to Aid to the church in Need. He has been the head of the national church since November 2016. “Up until now, we primarily focused on the figures. It was considered a success when a large number of people had come to be baptised. However, we baptised so many heathens without there having been a conversion,” the spiritual leader from the Nuba Mountains and thus one of the few native Christian North Sudanese, said. “Many people also misunderstand Holy Baptism. They bring their children to be baptised because they are sick and the parents believe that baptism will bring healing. But that is not the proper attitude. It shows us that the faith has not really taken root. Moreover, our local traditions are very strong,” In concrete terms, this means: going to Mass and then visiting a witch are not considered mutually exclusive.

The doctrine of marriage is especially problematic. The archbishop said, “The people want offspring and heirs at any price. And this is why they often have more than one wife. And if they only have one wife, but the marriage sanctified by the church remains childless, they take a new one. That of course cannot be reconciled with the Christian concept of marriage.” Archbishop Didi would like to react with a catechetical offensive. “We really need to start at the very bottom here and evangelise the culture. After all, it is not as though the doctrine of marriage is not being understood when you try to explain it to the people.” However, despite the many difficulties, the archbishop is not disheartened. “It gives me joy that the people are happy and proud to be Christians. They also wear Christian symbols with pride and conviction. And the people enthusiastically take part in church life. As I said, we lack depth. But the people have good intentions and an open heart for Christianity.”

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.