Learning lessons about the high cost of faith in Sudan

Published May 1, 2008

We bounced along one of the red dirt roads that crisscross south Sudan, our Land Cruiser’s shocks damaged by the many, many potholes. We were on our way to the rural village of Pacong from Rumbek, the capital of the Lakes State – considered a city, but it looks and feels more like a sprawling village due to its lack of infrastructure after the 21-year civil war between north and south Sudan.

The journey was long, hot and dusty, due to the absence of tarmac on the roads. At one point the driver slowed down, but this time it was not for a cyclist or a goat or a zebu (the long-horned cattle common in this part of Africa). In front of us was a crowd of mostly women and children, walking, singing and dancing. Some of the women wore the white dresses, headscarves and sashes that are the uniform of the Mother’s Union in Sudan. Many of the children wore their “Sunday best.” My traveling companions – local church workers and members of an international, ecumenical delegation who were paying a solidarity visit to the people and churches of Sudan – observed correctly that these travelers were on their way to the same place as us. And they still had miles to go before they reached their destination: the opening of a new church building, courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse, an American evangelical organization that is trying to stem the tide of Islam in south Sudan. The worshippers’ joy was infectious.

This merry group has stayed in my mind – the sacrifices they were making, the distance they were traveling as a display of their faith, the stark discomfort of sitting through the eventual five-hour service of celebration in a sweltering church.

Days later, our delegation – whose trip was organized by the World Council of Churches and the All Africa Conference of Churches – heard stories of persecution of Christians in north Sudan, including:

  • Dec. 31, 2006  incident where police fired tear gas into Khartoum’s Episcopal (Anglican) All Saints Cathedral, injuring six people;
  • the expropriation or confiscation by the Muslim-led government of many church buildings and properties;
  • the government’s failure to evict a used car dealer who has set up shop on land belonging to the city’s only Christian cemetery;
  • the loss of human rights (including his job) by a man in north Sudan who dared to convert from Islam to Christianity.

While freedom of religion is enshrined in Sudan’s 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, in reality Christians living there face daily challenges to the practice of their faith. Observers say Christians are often merely “tolerated,” or worse, in both the north and the south.

One bishop, Ezekiel Kondo of Khartoum, warned that the already-marginalized churches in the north could even disappear if the semi-autonomous south Sudan votes in a 2011 referendum for independence from the north, which is Muslim-led.

“How do we safeguard the church in northern Sudan if the country splits in three years?” wondered the Episcopal church bishop.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of church in the lives of Sudanese Christians. The churches were there for the people during the war and they are playing an integral part in the rebuilding of the nation. Their faith helps define them.

Most of us in Canada wake up on Sunday morning and we consider, perhaps, which church service we will attend. If we live in an urban area, we might even have a choice of which church to visit. Book of Alternative Services or Book of Common Prayer? Folk music or traditional, organ-backed choir? We can even log on to an online service, if we like. We won’t think much about the envelope we drop into the collection basket – it is probably less than what we spent the night before at dinner.

Some of us might just skip church altogether and catch up on our rest.

Do most Christians in the developed world have any notion of what it is to suffer for our faith?

And yet, the women and children we encountered, walking joyfully along a dusty road in Sudan, would probably not call it suffering – what they were doing. They might perhaps agree that there was some sacrifice involved in the journey – but they would still be singing and dancing.


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