Churches of Sudan

PROSPECTS OF A STRUGGLING CHURCH ORGANIZATION
IN WAR-TORN ISLAMIC SUDAN

The Sudan Council of Churches 17-22 July, 2000 Report on its Program Activities

The origins of the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) date back to January 21, 1965 when Christian missionaries in Khartoum came together to meet the challenges facing them as a result of the policies of the then government geared towards the implementation of the independence slogan, “one country, one language, one religion.”  This church leadership unity was such a great strength that it did not take long thereafter for the government to pass the infamous “Missionary Act” expelling all Christian missionaries from the Sudan.   The Council was known as “Evangelical Council of the South” up to 1967 when the name “Sudan Council of Churches” was adopted.  In 1973 SCC became well organized under its General Secretary, appointed in the same year.  This was with the specific aim of effectively rendering services to the returnees from exile, to the South, and the displaced within the country returning to their homesteads to pick up normal life again where it had been disrupted.  SCC was also to assist in the repatriation, re-settlement and rehabilitation processes. 

During the period 1973-82, it could be said SCC lived up to the expectations of its beneficiaries.  But the further decentralization of the South in 1983 and the launching of the war of liberation by the Southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) against the Islamic [forces] brought some of the Council’s activities to a halt in the areas immediately affected by the war.  Progressively the war engulfed the whole South, leaving only the government-held garrison towns.  But though the operational areas of the organization were smaller than before, SCC had to attend to a new phenomenon: influxes of displaced persons to the towns as well as emergency situations associated with children, expectant and lactating mothers, the sick, the elderly—name them all!  The word “vulnerables” entered into the vocabulary of the people to underscore the needs that continued to increase for the most disadvantaged groups in the society.  But not long after, another expression, “donor fatigue,” surfaced.  And in a bid to take control of the Council and suit it to their vision, the donors in 1995 evaluated some of the SCC activities, including the Emergency Response Program (ERP) and recommended areas of improvement in its management—else they (donors) would stop the funding.  They also recommended “downsizing,” saying SCC was too big to be managed, too slow to move and must have changes in the top management and reduction in staff.  Others called it redundancy.  This stand implied reduction in programs and funding.  And with gradual reduction in programs and funding, even after the removal of the incumbent General Secretary in 1995, SCC feared liquidation.  Since then SCC has been in its lowest ebb, though it has kept on doing its best, particularly with regard to capacity-building of the staff and of the fourteen member churches.

It is in the light of these situations that the 17-22 July 2000 “Strategic Planning Workshop” was held to “come out with a mission statement and a revised budget.”  I took the minutes and produced the draft of the proceedings of that long-expected, important and timely event.  The seven regions of SCC, representing the whole country, told their stories about conditions obtaining in their respective workplaces.

  1. Equatoria Region had no rains during the period covering January through May.  There were many deaths due to meningitis.  Though rains were in July, food items were too expensive for the people because a Northern-based bank (the Omdurman Bank) had bought the steamer’s staple grains (the dura) and purposely hoarded it to create scarcity.  There was hunger and people were therefore starving.  Government employees [had not received] salaries since February, but received seventy-five percent of their monthly salary in June.  People were frustrated, weak and sick and deaths were common.  The main town, Juba, had been in darkness since May, due to lack of electricity, and people drank water directly from the Nile.  The good news was that churches were working together and in solidarity with one another.  Almost all syllabi in schools are based on Islam, and relief food is used as an instrument for Islamization.  The public media propagates Islam and the courts use “Sharia” (Islamic law).  AIDS and malnutrition kill both adults and children and air and water are polluted by chemical weapons being used by the North in its genocidal war against the South.

  2. Bahr el Ghazal Region kept its school operational in the main town, Wau.  There were rains in July, but there was intensive war going on.  The SPLA took the town of Gogrial in June and Aweil and other towns were on their way to fall.  The people were very afraid there.  Hunger ruled supreme, because people had been mobile and could not therefore cultivate.  Furthermore, the agricultural land is under the control of the SPLA.  Rains were irregular and it was difficult to transport food from the SPLA areas to the government-held towns.  Endemic diseases, lack of shelter, medicines and low and irregular salaries characterized the town, Wau.  Many children of school age are displaced to Wau town.  They are unaccompanied and traumatized.  The mobility of people—especially soldiers—has increased the incidence of HIV/AIDS.  Tribalism is ascendant as politicians exploit the ignorance of their tribal groups.

  3. In Upper Nile Region schools were not yet opened and rains were still being expected.  The NGS [non-government organizations] were doing a good job digging trenches and running feedings centers.  Three-quarters of the main town was provided with water.  Though four churches work in Malakal, where there is calm, outside Malakal and in Bentiu heavy fighting was going on.

    The region embarked on capacity building for women, men and youth by conducting workshops on management and leadership.  Renk, the second-largest town to Malakal, was lost to thousands of displaced people from Maban and other areas.   As such communication links between Malakal and other towns such as Bentiu, Nassir, etc., have been cut due to the on-going war.  Sanitation is generally poor because of lack of latrines and lack of clean water in the towns of the region.

  4. Western Sudan Region comprises five SCC-member churches.  Their greatest difficulty had been getting approval for land on which to build churches/prayer centers.  Fighting was going on in some parts of the region, but displaced people had not as yet reached El Obeid—a sign that they were being kept elsewhere.  Dura was expensive—indicative of more and perhaps bigger problems to come.  Children had been enrolled in their thousands for primary education and church capacity building focused on development projects in the church and community.  The region continued to develop agricultural projects for both income and consumption and dealt with emergency response to man-made and natural disasters.

  5. Southern Blue Nile region is the youngest SCC region in the country.  At the time of reporting, it had many problems associated with insecurity outside its capital town Samazin.  Some garrisons had been captured by the SPLA and the guerillas also continued giving warnings to the other towns in the region, causing displacement everywhere.  [Representatives of this region] want more efforts expended on the peace process to end the war.   They said Christian education was not being taught in schools and parents could not afford payment of school fees.  They recommended adult education as a way out of that situation, while continuing to build on awareness creation on HIV/AIDS, conflict resolution and gender and development.  They looked forward to planning income-generating projects in connection with agriculture and fisheries.

  6. Eastern Region put their thrust on education and enhancement of ecumenism.  Because the region borders Ethiopia and Eritrea, it experienced frequent influxes of refugees caused by the war between the two countries.  The SPLA war has also caused a big internal displacement in and around the region’s main town, Gedaref.  Because of the Islamic Law being the law of the land, more and more women were being imprisoned for distilling and selling or drinking alcohol.  Men suffered the same fate.  Also the town teamed with big numbers of unemployed people.  There was widespread burning of the shelters of the displaced, their schools and prayer centers, done and signed by the government security organ.

  7. Northern Region is where the country’s capital town, Khartoum, is situated.  It shares a border with Egypt in the north.  The region was able to train church personnel and the community on projects.  It supported church schools and paid school fees for children whose parents could not afford to do so.  Because of understaffing and poor pay, the staff morale was low.

The churches have an opinion on what is happening in the country.  On Thursday, September 18, 1997, the president of the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Gabriel Zubeir Wako, made observations on the situation in the Sudan in a letter addressed to the Pope explaining the progress of the Church in the Sudan “growing in numbers, in strength for faith and wisdom.”  He supported this assertion with statistics:

Some signs of growth and the average of 7,000 adult catechumens we baptize each year in the North of the country after at least one full year of the catechumanate; the increase of vocations, especially to the priesthood, which has given us this year 129 students in theology and 90 in philosophy in the National Major Seminary, to which we add the others who are studying for the priesthood in Kenya and Uganda.

The Archbishop admired the “patience and the determination of the Sudanese people,” and asked all people of goodwill to lend a “determined hand to us,” because, “our people need help despite the declarations of the government to the contrary.”  “Many people are full of resentment, hatred and the desire to revenge,” he added.   “We signal the ravages that our traditional social set-up and family structures have suffered because of the war and the massive displacement of people,” he continued, and “we have the phenomena of thousands of one-parent families, run by women, most of them widows.  Many families have broken up with the members scattered in different directions.  Children, and especially the youth, without parental or adult guidance and care fill our towns,” he said.    Archbishop Zubeir deplored the “systematic demolition of Christian schools and multi-purpose centers, with the reasons given for the demolitions not convincing.”  He told the Pope, “it is more than thirty years now that the churches have not been granted any permit to construct decent places of worship [while] the Sudanese school syllabus is nothing but Islamic indoctrination for the children.”

 For the SCC partners, the Christian faith is relevant and effective in the situations of injustice and conflict experienced in the Sudan.  They stressed the fact that the principles of the Christian faith are as critical to the SPLM/A as they are to the Church of God.  They are confident dialogue can succeed if all work together in the struggle for liberation, lasting justice and peace in the Sudan.   They also urged SCC to get the people in the Sudan to work and to challenge them for a common purpose—to change the situation in the Sudan.

To many Christians who have greatly benefited from SCC, the sad state of affairs in the country in general and in their SCC organization could be seen as the fulfillment of the biblical prophesy that God should punish the Sudan.  

The Archbishop ended his letter with the peace process and the work the elites do in the church.

Our nation of peace differs from that of the government.  The government has been more vocal in calling for peace [but] we have serious reservations regarding the methods it chooses to translate the declarations for peace into deeds of peace.

 He was satisfied that:

. . . the Christian elites are gradually organizing themselves in order to give a better Christian witness in their professions through programs of ongoing Christian formation adapted to their needs; women have made themselves available for any service in the parishes and chapels, especially in promoting prayer in the home and in fostering the spirit of solidarity between families and with the poor; of the youth who are practically the factotum in our churches and communities.

It is difficult, therefore, to say what will happen to SCC in the near future.  Its demise would be a doomsday to most people of South Sudan.