A young boy guarantees himself he will get a good seat at a Sunday morning Dinka-language service in Rumbek, Sudan. Gatherings of 1,500 are common at the weekly Episcopal (Anglican) Church of Sudan service.
It is mid-morning on a Sunday in late March. The hot, equatorial sun is already warming up the day and still, an hour before the church service begins, the songs of praise are already rising above the enormous tree that provides shade to the hundreds of worshippers gathered below.
Seating is limited to wooden benches and plastic chairs – a boy of about five years of age even brings his own to guarantee a good seat. Generally, the women sit together in one section with many of them dressed in white dresses and headscarves (the uniform of the Mothers’ Union), shaking bells and other handheld instruments along to the lively hymns in the local Dinka language. The children gather in another section, the smaller ones occasionally wandering around hand-in-hand looking for family members. The men, the smallest group at this service, are on the margins of the gathering of about 1,400. Many of the adults hold distinctive long, wooden crosses through the service (see related story, p. 11).
Despite the challenges of everyday life in Sudan, the church – as it is in many parts of Africa – is growing. But churches in Sudan say they must contend not only with a nation that is rebuilding after two decades of civil war, but also with the presence (and growth) of Islam. Churches also complain of rumoured conversions to Islam based on inducements of scholarships, money and material goods.
In south Sudan, in the Episcopal (Anglican) Church of Sudan (ECS), the diocese of Rumbek (with the help of the American evangelical organization Samaritan’s Purse) recently opened 10 churches in one month. Where buildings do not exist, the church meets under trees. Simple head counts are done each Sunday and gatherings of 1,500 people or more are common at the Dinka-language service in the city of Rumbek, the capital of Lakes State, said Rev. Elijah Magel, a priest in the diocese. A remarkable 5,400 faithful attended the outdoor Easter Sunday service.
Down the road, the Roman Catholic bishop said his church also continues to grow. At most services, there are as many worshippers outside the church as there are inside. The 350-seat Holy Family church in Rumbek recently added a 7:30 a.m. English-language service to take the burden off the other three Sunday services (held in English, Arabic and Dinka languages). Bishop Caesar Mazzolari, an Italian-born bishop whose tanned skin reveals his 27 years in the African sun, said that as the believers increase, the numbers of catechists are chipped away. Often they are lured away to better-paying jobs with non-governmental organizations in the area (as the capital of the Lakes State in south Sudan, Rumbek is home to many NGOs and aid agencies). “We give them $45 per month, but the NGOs give them $1,000 per month.”
The church operates schools in the area and the numbers of confirmands would make North American church leaders envious. “Sometimes, they tell me to expect 70 and I get 150.” At his largest confirmation service, he laid his hands upon 1,200 young people (“I had help!”). His diocese covers 135,000 sq. km and it has 11 so-called “huge missions,” each of which has many chapels and prayer centres that meet under trees. And serving those growing numbers are just 30 priests (six of whom are native Sudanese, the rest are from abroad, including South Korea) and 1,300 catechists.
Bishop Mazzolari says in a country where Islam is always an appealing alternative, his church suffers from the lack of proper Christian formation. “If we don’t have catechists who are mature, we can give only surface knowledge. Then, as Islam comes along, (Muslims) can easily punch through that superficial knowledge.”
Meanwhile, Christians face ever-present restrictions in practising their faith in the predominantly Muslim/Arab area of northern Sudan, said Ezekiel Kondo, bishop of Khartoum, one of the biggest ECS dioceses . While the nation’s comprehensive peace agreement, signed in 2005, provides for freedom of religion for all Sudanese, in reality there are still obstacles.
“We have little freedom,” said Bishop Kondo, whose diocese is home to many southern Sudanese who fled to Khartoum during the civil war. The Mothers’ Union is active in his diocese and he has 150 clergy and assorted evangelists to minister to the worshippers in about 50 churches; the Episcopal Church claims about 1.5 million members throughout Sudan.
Arab culture permeates every facet of life in the north, and the Christian churches are given just one hour on television and radio each Sunday to promote the faith.
Under these conditions, evangelism is not just difficult; it can be dangerous. One Muslim man lost his marriage and his job when he converted to Christianity, said the bishop; the Episcopal church gave him a home and eventually helped him relocate to the Netherlands.
“It is hard for Arabs to become Christians,” said Bishop Kondo. “We can be suspicious and think that the ‘converts’ might be spies for the government. We never know if they are genuine.”
The bishop was speaking in Juba at a conference that gathered four international, ecumenical delegations from the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC); the four groups had earlier fanned out across Sudan, Africa’s largest country, as part of a solidarity visit to churches and ecumenical organizations. Bishop Kondo warned the gathering that if the semi-autonomous south Sudan votes in a 2011 referendum for independence from the north, the Christian churches in the north will be even further marginalized. They could even disappear.
“How do we safeguard the church in northern Sudan if the country splits in three years?” Bishop Kondo asked.
Christians in the north experience additional hardships. Bishop Kondo noted that the Arab government is known to expropriate church land and buildings when it deems necessary. The Episcopal Church lost its headquarters (later returned) and a hospital when the government claimed that the leases had expired. The diocese also lost its original cathedral building in 1971; the structure is now a museum. While the diocese was partially compensated, the amount was not enough to replace what it had lost.
And, more recently, last November, on the land that belongs to Khartoum’s only Christian cemetery, the churches discovered that merchants had set up shop – first selling livestock, then second-hand cars. Despite church protests, the government has so far failed to act in the matter.