Spare a thought for the Church in Sudan.
Thousands upon thousands of Sudanese are turning to Christ as their one sure hope in times of trouble.
And yet an unholy alliance of persecution and poverty has the Church firmly in its grip.
Just back from the Sudan, JOHN PONTIFEX from Aid to the Church in Need tells of a people suffering the Way of the Cross and desperate for the dawn of a new era.
“THERE are many people who want to stop Christianity in this country but it will never die. I want to keep it going. I want to serve the people of God as their priest.”
Daniel* spoke his words with quiet authority – even defiance. Until that point, the teenager had been bashful and reluctant to come forward.
And then it all came out – how as a toddler he and his family had left their home in the south of Sudan as the bombs began to fall, how they had struggled hundreds of miles north – mostly by foot it seemed, how they had arrived in Khartoum and moved into the shanty town where their mud-hut “house” was built.
“I really was afraid of being killed,” he then said before falling silent again, his eyes dropping to the ground.
The 16-year-old’s story was typical of those I heard in that grass hut full of excitable children, as dark as ebony.
Chatting with them in their school, it was clear from the start that one key factor bonding them together was a common faith.
This unshakeable belief in God had accompanied them on the long journey as refugees from the war-ridden south to the Sudanese capital.
Daniel’s school forms part of a programme called “Save the Saveable”, a programme started up by the Church to provide free education for poverty-stricken children, most of whom would have no choice but to stay at home.
The “Save the Saveable” scheme, which receives key funding from the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, is a lifeline to a community bonded together by faith.
Now the project is in deep crisis with debts of over $1.2 million. “It is the project dearest to my heart,” said the Archbishop of Khartoum, Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako, in a desperate appeal for more help.
THE poverty of the Sudanese faithful is one thing – the persecution they face is quite another.
They live in fear of bulldozers coming into the camp to demolish their homes at random. They said it could happen at any time.
For some families, demolition had happened that very morning. When they saw the priest who accompanied us approaching them, children in the camp ran to tell him the news.
“Let’s pray”, they exclaimed, and suddenly there we were standing under the baking hot sun, praying the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary. More prayers continued in the nearby mud hut chapel.
With their mothers out looking for new places to live, the children turned to Father Charles as their one source of support.
We left the priest to tend to his flock as we set off for another displacement camp. Looking out of the back window, I could see a bulldozer in action – this time a Christian cemetery was the target.
THE appalling poverty of people in Khartoum’s Christian shanty towns explains why they are powerless to stop the destruction of the few remaining fragments of civilization that give dignity to their lives.
Acting in the name of “city-planning”, government forces destroy buildings, throwing their inhabitants yet further out into the barren desert wasteland around the city.
The penniless people cannot pay the vast amounts they are charged to retain possession of their homes. It is hugely expensive to win government permits to build in alternative locations.
Just occasionally, sheer force of numbers is a good enough substitute for cash. When government forces threatened to demolish a church, the people encamped inside. Eventually, a compromise was struck and the road, which the authorities wanted to build straight through the Church, was re-rooted…at least for the time being.
The assistant parish priest, Fr John, said the people were prepared to do anything to keep the church. “For them, it is very important because they adore God here. It is the one place where we can come together and draw strength from one another.”
ANN* has been languishing in prison, wracked with fear that she will never get out alive.
Her crime – adultery: her punishment – death by stoning.
In an Islamic country, where strict Shari’ah law is in place, the evidence of a woman counts for little. The case presented by her husband, her accuser, inevitably had fate on its side.
Ann’s hope all along has been that proof will emerge to show she is Christian, which would mean that she is not liable under Shari’ah law.
But with nobody seemingly willing or able to act on her behalf, Ann’s hope has been in vain…until, that is, a priest stepped forward.
Fr Alphonse Murass keeps an eagle eye out on the court lists in his diocese of El Obeid, in central Sudan, and word reached him that Ann was a Christian.
He intervened, received a copy of her papers and discovered where she was baptised. Details of her baptismal certificate and other church documents were sent to the court and Fr Alphonse is hopeful of her release.
Ann’s case is just one among many taken up by Justice and Peace committees that operate in dioceses all over the Sudan. The initiative aims at informing Christians of their rights and intervening where possible to ensure justice prevails.
Fr Alphonse’s approach to the situation was strikingly simple: “We want to save life,” he said. “If the rights of the person are abused, we are here to help. Why should they judge a Christian with Shari’ah law?”
The work of Fr Alphonse and the Church’s Justice and Peace committees, barely skims the surface of a problem, which is as deep as it is widespread.
Women have limited status in Sudan, we were told. And as Christians they are stripped of any dignity that might remain. Summary court rulings result in frequent imprisonment of women accused of possession or production of alcohol, which is banned in a Muslim society.
They are flogged for appearing in public without their legs and heads covered.
The state has tried to stop women from working but those among Christians who are employed face frequent harassment to become Muslims.
They are offered better jobs, homes and new schools for their children if they convert.
Against this backdrop, the testimony of Michelle is remarkable. Speaking at the displacement camp where she lived, the mother of two held up the beaker of water she was carrying and said: ““It is better to live on nothing but this water and remain a Christian, than to abandon my faith and live a lie.”
TRAUMA has been like a companion to Fr Guido all his life. And yet his is a story, which shows how faith can – and does - conquer fear.
Immediately after ordination he was sent to a new parish outside Khartoum. Just days later, the regional government forced out the parish priest, claiming – falsely – that his help for the poor and oppressed was actually aimed at aiding and abetting rebel forces.
Fr Guido was next on their hit list. They demanded he hand them possession of the church so it could be turned into a police station.
But Fr Guido refused to hand over the keys and rang the church bells all night to summon the people to prayer and to ask their support to prevent the loss of their place of worship.
The place was packed for an all night prayer vigil.
But when the authorities refused to give in, Fr Guido complained so vigorously that eventually he presented his case to the President of the Sudan, Omar al Bashir.
Because of the outcry Fr Guido had created, the President was forced to take heed of the priest’s grievance.
But a complete capitulation was not what the President had in mind and instead Fr Guido was given three months to build a replacement church so the original could become a police station.
With no materials or money, it seemed an impossible task. And yet, drawing on the huge support he had gathered, Fr Guido was able to build a concrete church with seating for 400.
His courage had forced a rare government climb-down and he has become one of the only priests to gain official government agreement for the construction of the church.
A dozen years later, that experience ranks alongside a host of others to make 48-year-old Fr Guido a heroic figure in the Church of Sudan.
As official morale booster for the still-beleaguered Christian community, Fr Guido is Episcopal vicar for the diocesan clergy, tending to the often trauma-stricken priests, with whom he can identify so closely.
“The fact that I have had so many difficult experiences means that I can give a lot of encouragement to people and can help the priests enormously,” he said.
*We have changed their names to protect them.
Aid to the Church in Need is mounting a campaign to help the Church in the Sudan. For more information, or to make a donation contact the Australian office of Aid to the Churcgh in Need on (02)9679-1929, e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org, web:www.aidtochurch.org or write to Po Box 6245 Blacktown DC NSW 2148
Photo: School children at prayer in Khartoum. (Please credit Andrezj Polec if using this photo)