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Missionary Spotlight – Suffering in the Sudan

November 1999 | by Doug and Gill Reitsma

The Sudanese [Ethiopia] will raise their hands in prayer to God’ (Psalm 68:31). This is the ‘battle cry’ that many Sudanese Christians have adopted. This young church has seen much suffering since independence came to Sudan in 1956, along with civil war as the Arab north began to dominate the African south.

The few church leaders in the infant church soon went into exile in Uganda and Kenya. The small church seemed to disappear, as most of its buildings were burnt and looted. Later, all missionaries were expelled under the Missionary Act of 1962, which is still on the statute books in Sudan.

Lively faith

The signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972 ended the first phase of the civil war and the next ten years saw large growth in The Africa Inland Church – Sudan (AIC-S). One significant move for AIC-S was the opening of a church in Juba. In a short time this congregation spawned ten churches in different suburbs, and they have continued to multiply.

Politically, however, deterioration soon set in as the government in Khartoum realised what it had given away to the south in the Addis Ababa Agreement. Tensions increased and civil war erupted again in 1983.

Yet the hardships and suffering seem only to have increased the numbers of Christians and encouraged them in a lively faith and hope in Jesus Christ. Cattle, crops, government, traditions and cultures have all failed or disappeared. Who else is there to turn to but God?

In this connection, it was a moving and unforgettable experience not long ago, to be part of a reverent crowd of three thousand or so Christians, in a southern town, praying for their country and confessing their sins to God. The service continued for at least four hours with everyone standing quietly in the midday sun. We were surrounded by police with guns and northern soldiers in tanks. One was reminded of the events of Nehemiah 8.

Northern churches

As the south of Sudan became the theatre of renewed war, many Christians moved their families to Khartoum, expecting to find shelter there. Squatter camps grew up in the desert all around Khartoum. This meant tremendous hardship and poverty for the displaced refugees. Only the most menial jobs are open to non-Muslims, and secondary school leavers were only awarded certificates if they enlisted for military service to fight against the south.

The AIC-S Chairman went to Khartoum in the north in 1989 to see his family and learn how Christians from the south were faring. He soon established a Christian meeting under a tree in the compound of his daughter, in a suburb of Khartoum. From this small beginning AIC-S Khartoum has grown to nine churches in the environs of Khartoum, and six more in other northern towns. Congregations average 150 to 200 people, with a large proportion of those attending being under the age of thirty.

Because the AIC-S church in Khartoum uses the local Arabic language in its worship, it is more inter-tribal than some other denominations. This is a great strength. It is also a source of great tension. The war has led to an all-round absence of trust. To trust a tribal brother is difficult, but to trust a traditional tribal enemy, who even may have become a Christian, requires nothing less than the love of Christ.

Fearless

 

Southern Christians in the north experience almost daily hassle with the authorities and, humanly speaking, the future is bleak for them. Those who speak out fearlessly against injustice suffer for it, and where Christians appear to be exercising too much influence, their church property can be bulldozed.

A Muslim who converts to Christ faces the death penalty, and strong pressures are put on all Sudanese to embrace Islam. University places, food aid, and financial inducements are given to those who will utter the Muslim creed.

Reaching out

There remain large areas in the Sudan that are still untouched by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians are reaching out, however, sometimes just to the next village. Perhaps the village chief hears that Christian teaching is being given by an evangelist, and requests that his village be taught also.

This process can be like the ever-widening ripples in a pool when a stone is dropped in. Young Christians also reach out to neighbours, often beginning with a Bible study under a tree. This develops over a short time and, as more people gather together, they make mud blocks to build a church building.

As well as ‘missionaries’ going to the unreached, there is movement in the other direction, as tribal unbelievers seek out Christians. Requests come in for the Bible (a recognised Holy Book) to be translated into indigenous languages.

God’s Word is alive, and it may be his plan to save many through the reading of his Word in their own heart language. It should also be borne in mind that two thirds of church members are women, many being widows of soldiers, and a large percentage of the population are children.

Training needed

 

The practical need of the churches in Sudan is for training. There has been much church growth, but too few leaders are trained in biblical studies and practical subjects. A newly established congregation will probably be pastored by an evangelist with very little education. At best he might be attending a theological education-by-extension class, a basic system of Bible studies taught in seminar one week each month.

To complete such a course, probably lasting three years, takes much commitment. Travel, by foot or bicycle, to the centre where Bible teaching is given can take several days. In the war zone, classes are frequently interrupted by bombs, dropped from planes some two miles up, which are capable of causing much destruction.

Apostolic pattern

Sudan is a country where a new type of missionary pioneer is needed. It is no longer the case that a missionary can sit patiently and work with a tribe for years, but rather a worker must engage in a visiting ministry, which includes teaching others in the Word of God.

Challenges must be faced, such as how to train people while a civil war rages, where the communications infrastructure is still very primitive, and where climate and diseases are ever-present hazards. But Sudan is a country where Jesus is building his church and demonstrating that it prevails against ‘the gates of hell’.

The book of Acts is reflected in the current picture of the church in Sudan. There is blessing and phenomenal growth. There is spiritual hunger among believers, but sharp dissension among church leaders. There is famine and hardship, but communal sharing.

The great apostle Paul visited, evangelised, and then trained and commissioned the leaders he left in the young churches. He also prayed continually for them. Christian work in Sudan today needs to follow the same apostolic pattern.

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