Sudan, The Catholic Church in
SUDAN, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Republic of the Sudan is located in east Africa. Straddling the Nile River, it is bound on the north by Egypt, on the east by the Red Sea, Eritrea and Ethiopia, on the south by Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the west by Chad and the Central African Republic, and on the northwest by Libya. Cotton, Sudan's main economic resource, is cultivated by means of massive irrigation projects near the Nile. Apart from the Nile banks, northern Sudan is an arid plateau or desert. The south is fertile with abundant rainfall, but economically unexploited. Livestock production has been increasing. Mineral resources, which are poor, include petroleum, as well as small quantities of iron ore, copper, chromium, zinc, mica, silver and gold.
An independent republic since 1956, the Sudan (literally "country of the blacks") has alternated between periods of colonization from Egypt and periods of independence. In 1898, Lord Kitchner, a Britisher, crushed a massive revolt against Egyptian rule, and the Anglo-Egyptian condominium was established that would rule for over half a century. Ethnically the populace represents the results of centuries of invasion and migration. In the north live Arabs or "arabized" Hamites and Nubians, while to the south the inhabitants come from 56 major tribal groups, the most important of which are the Azande
and the Fung. One-third of the population concentrates in one-tenth of the land area along the Nile. Since 1993 civil war between the Arab Muslim north and the Black Christian south has resulted in a massive loss of life, a floundering economy and harsh criticism from international humanitarian organizations.
Early History. Egypt began its colonizing to the south in 2700 b.c. Roman influence brought Christianity to Dongola and Khartoum in the 4th century and created Christian islands that survived successive invasions by Muslim bedouins from Arabia, who entered by way of Egypt beginning in the 7th century. The Abbasids, the Fung Empire and other Muslim states ruled the area in succession, with the result that Christianity had disappeared completely by 1600. The northern Sudan came to embrace Islam, but animism retained its hold on the south, even after the chiefs introduced islam. Egyptian Pasha Mehemet Ali conquered the Sudan in 1820–22. A few Jesuits and Austrian diocesan missionaries vainly tried to begin evangelization in 1846; Franciscan efforts in 1861 fared no better.
The newly founded Verona Fathers succeeded in establishing a mission in 1872, but the regime of Mahdi Muhammad Ahmed (1881–98) ruined their work. In 1881 a massive revolt erupted under Ahmed's government that was successfully put down by Lord Kitchener in 1898. The Verona Fathers immediately renewed their work in the Sudan with 250 Catholics. By 1931 the Catholic population had increased to 39,416. In 1933 the mill hill missionaries joined the Verona Fathers in the south, where the Church worked among the native tribes.
A year after Kitchner's military intercession, the Egyptian and British governments signed the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement, under which they jointly governed the Sudan. Northern and southern Sudan were isolated from one another thus creating dramatic cultural differences. British influence lasted until 1950, amid a growing nationalist movement by the region's Egyptian population to the north. A three-year transitional period led to Sudanese independence in 1956 under a preliminary Sudanese government elected in 1953.
An Independent Sudan. As was typical of many newly created African nations, factional conflicts began almost immediately; in Sudan's case between the north and the south. Civil warfare between the northern and southern Sudanese led the British government to close the 161 mission schools in the south temporarily in 1955. The new Sudanese Republic allowed them to reopen in 1956, but expelled several missionaries on charges of complicity in the southern revolt. In 1957 all schools were nationalized as part of a national unification policy that aimed at the progressive Islamicization of the south. A military coup led by General Ibrahim Abboud took control of the government in 1958, continuing the policy of Islamicization and imposed martial law. In 1962 the Missionary Societies Act (MSA) severely restricted religious freedom, its main target the Christian churches of the south. The building of churches was forbidden, and freedom of opinion and expression was curtailed. The law, rigidly enforced only in the south, resulted in the expulsion of foreign missionaries. By the end of 1964 when more than 200 Comboni priests and sisters were indiscriminately deported, all Christian missionaries, save for a few Sudanese, had been driven from the south, and all mission schools were closed. In the north, where Christian proselytizing was not attempted, missionaries continued to engage in educational work and to minister to small expatriate communities. 1965 saw the establishment of the Sudan Council of Churches, an organization that would be involved in major relief and reconstruction work in the south during the decades to come.
In 1969 Prime Minister Abboud was deposed by Colonel Jafaar Muhammad al-Nimeiry, who governed under a revolutionary council and became Sudan's first elected president via elections held three years later. In 1974 the hierarchy was established, and a Sudan Episcopal Conference (SCBC) was formed. When Archbishop Baroni of Khartoum retired in 1981, the SCBC became the first national episcopal conference in modern church history to be made up entirely of African-born bishops.
While President Nimeiry's Addis Ababa agreement created a fragile peace between north and south that lasted from 1972 to 1983, his economic policies failed, resulting in growing unrest. In 1983 civil war broke out anew under the leadership of the Marxist Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a non-Muslim group based in the south. Missionaries who had returned after the Addis Ababa accord now came under the attack of both the SPLA and the government. Missions were sacked and priests and sisters held hostages for months by the SPLA.
Later, pressured by a new international political climate, the SPLA abandoned its ideology and allowed church personnel to work in the areas under its control.
The growing climate of violence and political unrest culminated in a bloodless military coup in April of 1985. Following a brief reign by Sadiq al-Mahdi, Lieutenant General Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir became prime minister, and political parties were banned. Islam became the state religion in the north, while penal codes for the entire country were Islamicized as early as 1984. The devastating conflict in Southern Sudan continues to be fueled by cultural differences, ethnic fragmentation and economic underdevelopment. The war situation and the continuous relocation of the displaced people deeply marked the life of the Christian communities and caused the failure of many pastoral initiatives.
In a letter to the new government in 1986, Sudanese bishops repeatedly asked that the MSA be repealed, noting that "Christian Sudanese will never enjoy freedom of religious profession and practice, neither public nor privately, as long as the 1962 MSA exists." The government did not respond. On the occasion of the visit of Pope John Paul II to Khartoum in February of 1993 Sudan
President Bashir, in a spirit of goodwill, promised to repeal the MSA, but this did not occur.
Focuses on Humanitarian Efforts. It was estimated that between 1983 and 1994, at least a million and a half southern Sudanese died, and four and a half million more became refugees or displaced, living outside their traditional homelands and in nearby Zaire, Uganda and Kenya due to the combined actions of the civil war and the recurrent droughts. Throughout the 1990s, conditions continued to deteriorate, as the SPLM waged war on the Muslim government. In 1990 missionaries were expelled from South Kordofan, and in 1992 from Juba. In the north, missionaries who were mainly engaged in educational work and in ministry to communities of foreigners were allowed to stay.
Beginning in 1989 the presence of the Church in the areas held by the rebels grew perceptibly, and the work of evangelization, rehabilitation and humanitarian assistance was carried out under the leadership of two bishops and an apostolic administrator. Their activity included advocacy at all levels (other episcopal conferences and international political organizations). They were assisted in this by People for Peace in Africa, a pacifist ecumenical organization based in Nairobi that began in response to the Sudan problem. In February of 1990 Catholics joined Sudan's other Christian churches in forming the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC) to unify ongoing humanitarian efforts to assist war victims.
In addition to aiding residents in militarized areas, the Church dedicated itself to working among the refugees and displaced, making Catholic missions a lifeline for many thousands who would otherwise live on leaves and grass in the famine-stricken region. Around the outskirts of Khartoum, where about a million and a half displaced southern Sudanese lived, SUDANAID was active. The Church established Multipurpose Centers (MPC) in rented houses or constructed them in squatter's camps with mud and straw. Run by catechists or lay-leaders aided by a committee, the MPC's offered educational and religious programs: kindergarten for children, women's education, reading programs, an organized catechumenate and prayer meetings on Sundays. By 2000 these camps were being dismantled by the government, the one on the outskirts of Khartoum razed and its residents forced into the desert. The Church was also present in the refugee camps of Zaire, Uganda and Kenya with missionary personnel and the NSCC. Pope John Paul II's short visit to Khartoum on Feb. 10, 1993 was a historic event in support of the Church's efforts. In his sermon the pope spoke of the long suffering of the people of Sudan and of the experience of the South as "a living Calvary."
Into the 21st Century. The special status given to Islam under Bashir's government fostered discriminatory practices against Christianity and other non-Islamic religions in the country. The right to practice a Christian faith continued to be constrained into the 1990s, and a new constitution promulgated in 1999 did little to promote religious tolerance, proclaiming Shari‘a and Islamic custom to be the source of all legislation. Catholic leaders responded with an attitude of openness and expressed a desire for dialogue as a means of promoting peace efforts, human dignity and mutual respect, but rejected the imposition of an Islamic state. Because Christianity had become a symbol of resistance to the imposition of this state, Catholic priests continued to be the focus of harassment by police, and were sometimes subject to false arrest. In 1998 two priests were charged with a bombing attempt in Khartoum but were later released. In 2000 an armed police squad entered the priests's residence of Comboni College secondary school to ostensibly search for illegal immigrants. Other areas of concern were the taking of slaves—usually Christians or practitioners of indigenous faiths—in the southern war zone and their transport to northern Sudan. By 1998 it was reported that the Church was buying back orphaned children away from their captors.
By 2000 the Catholic community continued to reside in southern Sudan, and consisted of four rites: Armenian, Chaldean, Maronite and Roman. There were a total of 104 parishes, tended by 188 diocesan and 123 religious priests. Other religious, who aided in humanitarian efforts and operated the country's 206 primary and 22 secondary Catholic schools. The three primary Orthodox Churches in the region were the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Armenian Orthodox Church, all of which had adherents living near Khartoum. Housing the government, Khartoum became a focus of anti-Christian action, razing Christian churches, schools and other structures, confiscating Church property, and refusing permits for new construction. A peace agreement reached in 1997 negotiated a southern self-determination referendum by 2001, although the terms of the agreement were later disputed.
Bibliography: j. dempsey, Mission on the Nile (New York 1956). Le missioni cattoliche: Storia, geographia, statistica (Rome 1950) 93–96. Annuario Pontificio has data on all diocese.
[j. a. bell/
r. k. sesana/eds.]