Faith in the Crossfire–How Sudanese Believers Are Living Boldly in a Deadly Culture

January 19, 2018 by David Wright in Africa

In Africa’s third-largest country where Islam is the main religion, Christians in Sudan (#4 on the World Watch List) must be extremely cautious when interacting with Muslims; as any mention of their faith could be construed as an “act that encourages apostasy against Islam.”

She gave birth shackled to the floor on death row.

Mariam Ibrahim, a Sudanese Christian and mother of two, had been charged with apostasy and adultery for marrying a Christian man. As punishment for her crimes, she was to be lashed 100 times and hung by the neck until dead.

Like Ibrahim, pastors Michael Yat and Peter Yen were sentenced to death in a Sudanese prison–all for professing faith in Jesus.

Ibrahim was released in 2014, thanks to an international outcry and advocacy by Open Doors and other organizations, and the pastors were released in 2016.

But their harrowing stories of imprisonment offer a glimpse into the harsh reality of persecution in Sudan, which has remained on Open Doors’ World Watch List since 1993, coming in at No. 4 on the newly released 2018 World Watch List–up one spot from No. 5 in 2017.

‘One Religion-One Culture’

In Sudan, persecution is systemic. At times, it’s reminiscent of ethnic cleansing. Deeply rooted in Islam, the government strictly implements a “one-religion, one-culture” policy, resulting in bitter conflicts between Arabs and Africans, Muslims and Christians.

For decades, religious conflicts have fed the fires of war in Sudan. For more than 20 years, a conflict between North and South Sudan centered around implementation of Sharia law. And, when South Sudan seceded in 2011, the Sudanese government once more confirmed its commitment to Sharia.

Conflicts among other groups continue today.

For believers in Sudan, Islamic oppression and dictatorial paranoia are the primary persecution engines. Religious tension is felt in all spheres of life, but most of all in Christian communities. Some Christians are arrested on charges of espionage, and in areas with ongoing conflict, Christians are attacked indiscriminately. Believers are losing churches they have gathered and worshipped in for years. Many churches have been demolished, with others on an official list awaiting demolition. The government regularly arrests and intimidates Christian leaders and has demanded on at least one occasion that leadership be handed over to a government-supported committee.

In the World Watch List 2018 reporting period, the government closed down more than 20 churches. In the same period, at least three Christians were killed, although exact numbers have been difficult to obtain.

Open Doors comes alongside the almost 2 million Sudanese Christians (out of a total population of 42 million) through local partners in Sudan to provide much-needed provisions: discipleship training, persecution preparedness, theological training, trauma care and other services for people like Ibrahim.

 A special visit

Persecution is especially harsh in the Nuba Mountains, home to the Nuba people, who fought for independence alongside South Sudan and were left in the north after the conflict.

Today, they continue to hope and pray for independence and freedom to worship.

The Nuba people have occupied the mountains that stretch across south and central Sudan for generations. Despite efforts by the Sudan government to uproot them and keep outside help at bay, the Nuba have remained resilient and carried on with normal life as much as they can.

Thanks to your support, Open Doors has provided much-needed help to the group.

Fikiru*, a team member on the ground there, recently visited a Bible school supported by Open Doors in the Nuba region. About 18 students graduated in an emotional ceremony. Open Doors gave each student a bicycle–a gift that saved at least one student five or six hours a day in travel time.

Hundreds of men and women flocked to the graduation ceremony for Nuba evangelists and missionaries.

With help from Open Doors, the college has managed to train hundreds of evangelists and missionaries. Its on-the-job training approach has helped students learn while they minister and stay focused on serving the people of the Nuba mountains.

Hunger gap

Since August 2016, the Sudan government has honored a ceasefire with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, a rebel group in the country fighting to maintain independence.

Many people in the Nuba Mountains wonder how long the ceasefire will last. Recently, a presidential decree extended the ceasefire through March 2018; it was originally scheduled to end by December 2017.

Though the sound of constant bombing has stopped for now, life in the region is far from easy. Indiscriminate bombardments in prior years have left many people displaced, with the blocking of humanitarian aid and access to local markets keeping the Nuba people in hunger. A severe drought affecting most of East Africa further exacerbates the plight of the people in the region. Basic services like medical support and education are non-existent.

Children and widows are suffering the most.

 “There was no rain, and we are facing a food shortage,” one church leader in the region said. “We are very concerned that our people will not be able to sustain themselves for much longer. Eventually, some will cross into government-controlled areas, and that will be disastrous. They will run into inhumane soldiers. Young girls are especially at risk. That is our fear and anxiety.”

 A resilient people

Resilience, sacrifice and servitude remain as hallmarks of the Nuba community. They always ask for prayer and help to extend the Kingdom of God. At times, they have asked for seed so they can plant and grow their own crops. Hardly ever have they asked for food.

But recently, the situation has become so dire, they have had no choice but to ask for help–specifically, the most vulnerable among them.

Open Doors provided emergency food (sorghum and beans) to 12,500 widows and children in five different areas, along with basic medicine and mosquito nets. In addition, we’ve been able to supply schools, train teachers and pastors, and visit as regularly as possible to encourage these fellow believers.

For people in the Nuba region, education is essential–and they have had to overcome many challenges to get it. They have lacked proper shelter, textbooks and other school supplies, even facing the threat of violence. But they have not stopped. Children have studied in creek beds and in the wild–but through it all, they’re taught in their own area by their own teachers, many of whom have taken training courses offered by Open Doors.

In the Nuba region, families are still able to live together, which strengthens the church and the community. Food production has increased, and the Bible college is able to support the local church in its need for trained pastors.

Your support enables our brothers and sisters in the Nuba Mountains– and the rest of Sudan–to not only survive but also to be powerful witnesses for Christ.