Available languages:
Credit card

Privacy policy

Christians in the Muslim World

The Sudan: Working in a Feverishly Suspended Present

While Khartoum is being transformed at a Chinese rhythm (Peking is in fact the first investor here), over four million homeless people remind us that this large country cannot yet say that it has recovered from the wounds of the war between the North and the South, In addition, the bloody chasm of Darfur, which has swallowed up innumerable human lives, remains open.

They killed each other for decades, the country was divided in two, the North against the South, or perhaps also in pieces, and yet at the sides of the roads in the Sudan large vases full of water hang from trees that are as old as this land. They are ready to satisfy the thirst of those who pass by. It can happen that you can see someone stop in front of these terracotta objects which are able to keep the water cool even in the most torrid seasons, stretch out their arms to get the bowl which serves as a glass and have a drink of water under a sun that always burns you and makes you thirsty.


These vases pose a question: why should one bother to pour in water for an unknown person who perhaps will encounter them? But one has to get used to the provocations and questions here, in the largest country in Africa, a mixture of violence and distances, but also of drawing near and of crossroads, which only in January 2005 emerged from a series of eternal civil wars and coups.


From independence, which was obtained in 1956, until today, clashes, the bombing and burning of whole villages, the disappearance and arrest of men accused of treason, and the flight and migration of thousands and thousands of families from their homes, have all been constant.


These are years that have sowed in northern Sudan and above all in the south of the country, which has been the theatre of the principal clashes, a desperate misery and disorientation amongst those who are today trying to return to their homes, to their home cities and towns, where nothing remains of what they had and where they do not have the means to begin work or a field to till. In vast regions there is no water supply, the roads are far and few between and potted, and routes of communication between the north and the south of the country do not exist, with the exception of the air routes. Communication by telephone, which as regards connections between the north and south is intermittent, helps to maintain these long distances.


There is a word that defines this uncertainty and permeates every observation about the Sudan. That word is 'displaced', and it is stuck to millions of people who fled from the war zones to look for safer places within the frontiers of the country, towards Khartoum, or to just outside the country, in Uganda or Kenya. Reference is made to 4-5 million people, a figure which, when compared to the total population of 34,600,000 of the country, is heavy indeed.


Like other countries in the south of the world, the Sudan today, as well, after the signing of the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) in January 2005, is being born again in the insidious terrain of a few rich people and very many poor people these last live on the outskirts of the capital, Khartoum, in houses built of mud; they are hungry and shoeless, and they see arrive on the horizon great luxury blocks owned by companies that come above all from Asia (the top thirteen companies that invest in the Sudan are Chinese), blocks that are paid for by the precious oil.


The economic growth rate is rapid because the Sudan is rich in natural resources. GDP growth touched 10% in 2006 and a further leap forward is expected for 2007. The green gold and the black gold are the source of wealth land made fertile by the Nile ensures an agriculture that is responsible for 39% of GDP, and the oil, which is the object of dispute between various forces, in 2007 will have an export value of over 13 milliard dollars.


A walk on the escalators of Afra, the first global commercial centre in Khartoum, which has large numbers of Italian shirts, or a stroll amongst the building sites of the business district that is springing up around the confluence of the two Niles thanks to investments from China, Malaysia, Singapore, Libya, Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Middle East, could push the war back in time, and make you believe that the country is working to 'implement the peace', to employ the phrase used here, that war is a season that has been closed and consigned to the archives. Were, that is, the wound of Darfur still not open and bleeding. In this western region in 2003 war broke out again between soldiers on horseback, the Janjaweed, nomads suspected of being supported by Khartoum, and the blacks, Africans on the whole who belong to tribes of farmers who live in that area and were accused of being separatists in rebellion against the central government. The scale of what Colin Powell, who was then the Secretary of State of the United States of America, described in 2004 as 'genocide' is difficult to quantify but it would appear that there were 300,000 deaths and more than two million refugees. Jervas Mawut, aged 37, a Combonian father for about ten years who is also the parish priest of Nyakla Parish, tells us that 'some time ago I went to a locality of Darfur that I had previously known as a lively centre, one full of life and with thousands of residents, but I arrived the day after the Janjaweed had passed through it. It had been completely razed to the ground.'


The history of Darfur also helps to dismantle the simplistic analyses of those people who have tried to explain the war between the northerners and the southerners, which involved the whole country, as a clash between Muslims and Christians, and reminds us of the complexity of the history of this area which, like the national averages, has a Sunnite Muslim population which makes up 70.3% of the general population, a Christian population that amounts to 16.7%, an animist population that makes up 11.9% (1.1% the others), and is divided into thousands of ethnic groups and tribes. Scholars have identified five main ethnic groups: the 'very black' in complexion who are tall and are divided between the Dinka, i Nuer, the Nuba, etc., and live off hunting, fishing and pastoral activity; the less black, the descendants of Cam, the son of Noah, according to tradition, and who are settled farmers, for example the Fur, the Masalit, etc.; the Bega, farmers who came from Asia across the Red Sea; the Nubians who lived in the zone between the Assuan and Debba; and lastly the group of Arabs who came to Africa before Islam, travelling down the Nile, the Red Sea and the Sahara.


Here, before the colonial age, and in particular between the fifth and the fifteenth centuries, three and then two great Christian kingdoms were established which extended their influence in the south and the west, including the Nuba mountains and the Darfur, to the Christian kingdom of Axum in contemporary Ethiopia. It appears that Christianity spread rapidly in the region of Nobadia, to the north, and to such an extent that in his letter, Longinus, the first bishop of this Church, wrote in the fifth century: 'the people crowd in thousands to enter the way of salvation'.


Subsequently, around the middle of the seventh century, the Islamic army, pushed forward by the zeal inherited from the Prophet who had just died, set in motion the first attempts to invade these Christian kingdoms. But it was only roundabout the thirteenth century that the Muslim presence was felt in a major way in the land of the three Niles. After repeated invasions, because of the isolation in which the Church in this part of Africa found itself as well, the process of Islamisation and partial Arabisation became unstoppable because of the presence of Arab tribes that came down from Egypt. Through mixed marriages and intense trade Islam was extended far and wide.


Professor Jafar Mirghani, director of the Sudan Civilisation Institute, the bearer of vast knowledge about ancient Sudanese civilisation, tells us that 'the Sudan was a land for caravans that passed through it and came across each other. Here pilgrims also travelled. From West Africa they went to Mecca and contributed to the spread of Islam'.


The subsequent arrival of the Ottomans brought about the Islamisation of the north, which was almost completed by the beginning of the nineteenth century, an epoch when the economic practice, which was very favourable to these 'northern' peoples, of using the south of the country as an area for the supply of food, wealth and slaves, became consolidated.


The first European missionaries arrived during the middle of the nineteenth century. They were called by the need to act to halt as they could the heavy abuses of the southern populations and to end slavery, as well as to evangelise, and they did not allow themselves to be pushed back by the malaria that decimated their numbers. Amongst these 'pioneers' there was also Daniele Comboni who arrived in central Africa for the first time in 1857. From him, from his passion for this land, from the same passion that now animates his religious brothers, was born the great family of Combonian men and women missionaries who over the years established parishes, schools and hospitals which even during the most difficult periods maintained services that were vital for the population even though at different stages these missionaries have been expelled or discriminated against. This took place during the reign of the Mahdi (1885-1898), as Mohammed Ahmed was called, the man who proclaimed himself the leader of the purification of Islam and the expulsion from the country of the Turks. The Mahdi, after being raised to the rank of an authentic national hero after his victory over the British army, the Turks and the Egyptians, had many missionaries arrested and tortured and managed to control the whole of the Sudan with the exception of the South. In fact, he behaved like his predecessors the Turks, and imposed taxes, reduced his enemies to slavery, and championed Islamic jihad.


The history of the Sudan changed again in 1896 when the Egyptian army, supported by the British army, once again conquered the Sudan and imposed the Anglo-Egyptian condominium. The new government of the Sudan feared the spread of Arab nationalism and not only allowed the return of the Christian missionaries but implemented a specific policy of separating the South and the North. It established a division of the country into closed districts. To enter and leave them a permit was needed. English was imposed as the official language in the South which was separated from the rest of the country with the creation of an empty area between Darfur and Kordofan.



Control of Education


In 1946 there was a change of direction and London began to work to try to fuse the two realities of the country. But by now it was too late and the fracture, which had opened up and become consolidated down the centuries and through violence, was the terrain of the first civil war (1955-1972) and the second civil war (1983-2005), which broke out in part because of the constant attempts by the North to impose its political, cultural, economic, social and religious dominion on the non-Arab and non-Muslim South.


One need only think that as early as 1956, when the Sudan has just obtained its independence, the new government, which was overwhelmingly made up of northerners, announced that it would also take control of education in the South. It expelled many missionaries with the most varied justifications, imposed Friday as the weekly holiday, and filled the schools of the villages with madrase where Arabic was taught and the Koran was recited. By the Missionary Societies Act of 1962 the missionaries were obliged to ask for an annual licence which was not always granted or renewed, and in 1983, and this was a decisive step, Islamic law was imposed on everyone.


Msgr, Paolino Lukudu Loro, the Bishop of Juba in the extreme south of the Sudan, a diocese of 25 square kilometres with a population of about 700,000 people of whom 480,000 are Catholics, tells us that 'before the last war, during the truce, families lived in mutual respect and it was not strange for Christians and Muslims to be members of the same family and to sit with ease at the same table together'.


Msgr. Lukudu is head of the national bishops' conference and his generous smile emanates energy, the same energy that has accompanied him over the years as his city, Juba, was occupied by the army from Khartoum and when he went to release certain priests who had been arrested and tortured in the so-called 'white house', while nearby the villages and towns were in the hands of southern separatist militias, at times united against the Arab enemy and at times at odds with each other. 'Today', the bishop declares, 'we must rebuild the foundations of mutual respect'.


After the coup of 1989 which brought him to power, General Omar Hassan el Beshir imposed during the middle of the 1990s a process of forced Islamisation and Arabisation with the result that, for example, Arab was imposed as the language of instruction in schools.


Mustafà Awad el Karim, a Muslim and the president of the Usratuna Sudan Association for Disabled Children, an NGO born in Italy that works in Khartoum and Juba with a series of educational projects for disabled children and teenagers, tells us that 'establishing a single national language could be a good choice, a choice that can foster the unification and the identity of a country which has so many ethnic groups and languages. But if one reaches the point where one has to impose a specific language by force this means that this policy has a weakness in it that sooner or later will be translated into violence against someone. When a choice does not arise from objective reality but from an ideology, in the long term it manifests all its fragility. And today I can see that my children do not speak either Arabic or English well. It is the educational system itself that has undergone a debilitation.'


Today in the Sudan a child has to go to school until the age of fourteen but this is respected in 80% of cases only in the capital because in the villages of displaced people or in the South this percentage falls substantially. And it is difficult for the schools to decide freely on their study plans. 'The boys who study at out college, including the Christians', explains John Samba, the headmaster of Comboni College in Khartoum, which has a thousand pupils, half of whom are Christians and half of whom are Muslims, have to study textbooks which, in relation to every discipline that is studied, have references in every chapter to sure from the Koran. If they want to pass the final state examination they have to learn these sure by heart'.


In 1994 the Sudanese regime, through its Missionary Act, prohibited all forms of non-Muslim proselytism and placed the Church on the level of a foreign NGO.



Referendum of 2011


The peace agreement of 2005 put a brake on all of this by allowing the establishment by a new parliament of a Constitution that at least formally offers new guarantees: it clearly makes a distinction between the North, which has an overwhelming Muslim majority, and the South where Christians and followers of traditional religions are predominant. It also envisages that in 2011 the South will vote in a referendum on whether to separate or not from the North, and it also lays down that the Shari'a will be the source of law only in the North and that in the South the source of legislation will be the will of the people, the values and customs of the population, and its religious traditions and beliefs.


Although this constitutional text recognises religious freedom, in fact non-Muslim religious organisations are subject to various forms of discrimination. The official day of rest for the country, for example, remains Friday and although Christians are granted two hours on Sunday to go to Mass this is not guaranteed to young people who go to school. In schools in the North the study of Islam is obligatory and even though in some areas students can choose whether they want to follow the teachings of the Koran or follow the teachings of Christianity, the lack of qualified Christian teachers makes this impracticable.


'Our country is Africa in miniature, a laboratory to experiment how to set in motion throughout the continent a path of development and growth'. These are the convinced words that come from the experience of the lecturer and scholar Hassan Makki, a Muslim teacher at the International University of Africa, which was created at the beginning of the 1990s and is not dependent on any government body but is supported economically by the government and by foreign funds. A part of the network of the Union of African Universities which seeks to raise the cultural level of young people in Africa, and at the same time of the network of Arab Universities in the World, the IUS now has five thousand students, 60% of whom are not Sudanese, including Chinese and Malayans. Many of these students comes from other African countries, are studying to become medical doctors, engineers, or experts on Islam, and they cannot graduate unless they pass the Arabic examination, which is the language of every study course. 'Our country is a tolerant country', declares Hassan, outlining the profile of Sudanese Islam which although it has the presence of many confraternities, is in his opinion loyal to Islam of the five pillars, 'and respects rights'. 'Indeed, much more than certain European countries. If a Sudanese, who here has the right to have more than one wife, goes for example to live in Italy, this right of his in his new country is no longer recognised. If, on the other hand, an Italian lives here, his rights and the rights of his wife are all safeguarded'.


'What is the face of local Islam today', asks Msgr. Daniel Adwok, the Auxiliary Bishop of Khartoum, 'Islam takes its colour from the land it finds itself in; if it is a violent land, Islam becomes violent. A season of renewal took place during the 1960s and 1970s thanks to the 'missionaries' that were trained in Cairo and sent here from Cairo, from Al-Azhar, and the power of the present President is based on this form of Islam. To understand the lifestyle one has to see that over the last ten years a great number of mosques have been built, but no church has been built. If you want to build a place of worship, it must be presented as a place with many uses or as a cultural centre. For forty years the government has not trained teachers of the Christian religion but 'religion' is a subject that is obligatory for examinations to obtain a diploma at the end of secondary school. And forms of discrimination are encountered when a person looks for a job; if you become a Muslim it is much easier to find one'.



Mental Visions


The government controls religious publications, whether they are imported or printed in the country, through the National Press Council, which, for example, decided in 2005 in favour of the arrest of Mohamed Taha, the editor of the daily newspaper Al-Wifaqa, because of an article that was considered blasphemous towards Muhammad. The journalist who wrote the article was found decapitated in September 2006, a murder claimed by an Islamic group near to the international terrorist network Al Qaeda, whose founder established his base in the Sudan in the 1990s. This was a presence paid for at a heavy price by Khartoum, which was bombarded for this reason in the summer of 1998 by the Americans.


But in this Sudan, a crossroads of Africa that is moving towards the decisive date of 2011 under the gaze of thousands of international observers and NGOs, made strong by its oil, what is a capital that outshines European capitals creating and what is the state of relations between Christians and Muslims?


In the opinion of Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako, the Archbshop of Khartoum, the whole subject should be seen not only within the political context of the Sudan, which is based on Islam and geographically is always near to the homeland of Muslims, but also in the light of the diversity of races that are present within it. 'This complexity', explains the Cardinal who was arrested and kept in a cell for a number of hours in 1998 because the diocese was accused without a shred of proof of owing 650,000 dollars to a merchant from whom it had bought goods for refugees', 'lies in the fact that Muslims here in the Middle East, as well, use Islam to maintain the established system of government. This leads them in some cases to ignore people who are different from them. The problem is that at times it is truly difficult to establish if it is Islam that leads these people to act in this way or whether it is the evil that lies in the hearts of men that causes shameless abuses'.


'The question I pose to myself', observes the Archbishop of a diocese that covers an area of almost a million square metres, is three times the size of Italy, and has a population of over eighteen million people of whom 900,000 are Catholics, 'is whether people really ask themselves and ascertain if they know how to use reason. Because it is surprising how in the face of certain facts, although human reason is employed, such different conclusions are arrived at, such different readings and acts are arrived at. Africans have a mental vision with which to look at things and to think. And Arabs, like Muslims, have another. This is evident not only among educated people, who can manipulate a discussion or a dialogue, but also among ordinary people. I have observed that Christians and Muslims truly have different mental positions, and thus today I believe the relationship between them and us, which is really very complex, has reached the point of being suspended'.


The word 'dialogue' has a different sound in the voice and experience of the Cardinal than when it is pronounced in the North of the planet: 'a dialogue can be obtained easily when one is dealing with simple things, such as the position of chairs in this room, but when it is asked to lead to a transformation in a way of thinking or to an openness to different forms of thought or reaction faced with precise and concrete situations, then everything becomes very difficult. A great deal of time will be needed. One needs mutual trust between people, which, because of the war and the hate that has been sown over the years, has been completely lost, and to rebuild will be very arduous. One can easily hear a person from the south of the Sudan declare in a convinced way that one cannot trust an Arab. And when he says an Arab, he means a Muslim. To achieve true reciprocal openness a great deal of road still remains ahead of us.'



Aerials on the Belfry


This is a journey that the Sudanese Church and the missionaries who work in tandem with it are not afraid to make, even though it is uphill. The latest initiative taken in this direction is called Bakhita, the name of the first female saint of the Sudan. Its first music and season's greetings went out on the airwaves from Juba on Christmas Eve of 2006 and it is the mother radio of a future Catholic network. 'This radio which at a low cost can potentially reach the 500,000 inhabitants of this region', explains Sister Cecilia, a Combonian from Mexico, a concentrate of determination and grit who was responsible for the launch of the station, 'wants to work for the promotion of culture of peace. To finish with war and try to sew up the wounds that are open within families and between families. When the cook of our mission sees a rifle she immediately begins, literally, to tremble, without being able to control herself: the war has marked her to the bones. It is a matter of beginning again here'.


It is certainly the case that there is no absence of difficulties: putting the antenna on the belfry of the Cathedral of St. Theresa in the neighbourhood of Kator while soldiers fire off shots to protest against the fact that their wages have not been paid, as happened a few weeks before the first broadcast, is certainly no cakewalk, just as it is not easy to find young people who have a minimal schooling behind them and who speak at least Arabic and English who can be launched on the profession of being a speaker.


In this region, in which 85% of the population cannot read or write, the few that have remained and have managed to go to school and to study are in demand by NGOS and paid with wages that the Catholic Church can certainly not afford. The international organisations, which rained down from all over the world after the peace agreement, with their Western standard prices have upset the whole of the economic situation in Juba to the point that a bed in a tent can cost as much as 150 dollars a night!


These high percentages of Sudanese people who cannot read or write have specific faces and histories that are encountered every day by the Combonian sisters of Villa Gilda, a maternity clinic in the centre of the Khartoum where over a hundred and fifty babies are born every month. The mothers who arrive here, in fact, are from very different backgrounds: there are young women covered with gold bracelets and there are the poor women from refugee villages on the extreme outskirts of the capital. Eight or nine times out of ten these women live in polygamous marriages, and amongst them there are Catholic Christians, Muslims, Copts, Jews and animists: 'but all these differences here, in our hospital, are not relevant', explains Sister Guadalupe, a Mexican who divides her time between administrative work and providing service in the refugee villages, 'it is as though the miracle of life being born does not allow forms of hatred and incomprehension, which have made a desert of relationships outside the hospital, to cross the walls and come to these wards. That is the miracle of the babies'.


But Sister Guadalupe is a witness to a number of surprises in other contexts, even the most inconceivable surprises. Once a week she goes to the homes and the huts of displaced people to animate groups of catechesis for young people and adults. 'I lead a group of about twenty adults, half of whom, even though they do not know how to read, follow the reading of the Gospel with commitment', she tells us betraying the amazement of a Combonian sister who has come from Mexico. 'They are people who have nothing because for most of them there is no work, and yet taking the Gospel as it is written they place themselves at the service of those who are even worse off than they are, and they take turns to look after the sick, the disabled, without caring about the tribe to which these people belong. And I am always struck by this'.


This, too, is perhaps behind those terracotta vases full of fresh water. A sort of network woven by hands that are stretched out in mutual help when people are seen as being simply men and women who are in need of help. A network that certainly does not eliminate wounds or divert attention away from a reality that is so problematic but one which does impede them from halting the desire for recovery.