Sudan is an Arabic word meaning ‘the place of black people’. To the Ancient Egyptians it was ‘Cush’ and to the Romans ‘Nubia’. Sudan has a richly diverse terrain, climate and ethnic community. Endowed with copious natural resources, it has been called the ‘bread basket of Africa’. It is probably the African nation with the greatest economic potential, second only to South Africa. Yet because of prolonged civil war, it is now one of the poorest nations on earth.
Over the last twenty years, nearly all of Sudan’s neighbouring countries have been torn apart by ethnically-based civil wars. And such is the deep cleavage in Sudanese society that it is hard to think of Sudan as one nation. Really, there are two groups of people: the lighter-skinned northerners, who speak Arabic, come from Arab or Egyptian stock, and are mostly Sunni Muslims; and the southern Sudanese, who are black Africans drawn from many tribes and who speak more than two hundred languages and dialects. The historic enmity between the south and north accounts for the tribes of southern Sudan resisting the ‘Islamisation’ that has spread to many other African countries.
While most southern Sudanese were traditional animists, at least until the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Nubians worshipped the stars, studied ‘science’ and pursued ‘wisdom’ until the latter part of the sixth century. It was then that Bahriya, the heir to the Nubian throne, was converted to Christianity, and the Nubian people subsequently followed his new religious allegiance. Yet, for the most part, true Christianity was submerged in ritualism and monasticism. Nubian ‘Christians’ had little contact with the Bible and no real understanding of sin and grace.
For more than seven centuries Nubia prospered as a part of Christendom and was a powerful force in East Africa. But by the end of the thirteenth century it had converted to Islam, which had arrived replete with Arab wealth and education. During the nineteenth century, Sudan and Egypt came under British control. British colonial rule provided political stability and religious toleration, which enabled missionary activity and gospel outreach to take place, first in northern Sudan and later in the south.
This outreach was further stimulated by the success of Reformed missions in Egypt, where the translation and publication of the Arabic Bible brought about a spiritual revival among the Coptic ‘Christian’ minority. The subsequent employment of Egyptians as civil servants by the British in Sudan meant that immigrant Egyptian evangelicals were able to witness to indigenous Sudanese. Thus Arabic congregations were established in Khartoum and other northern Sudanese towns.
In the meantime, American Presbyterians and British Anglicans began mission stations throughout southern Sudan. Many of the Presbyterians and Anglicans were evangelical and Reformed, and worked in co-operation. So, while Anglicans worked among the Dinkas, the Presbyterians worked among the Nuer and Shilluk people. The Lord richly blessed these missions. Many southern Sudanese were converted and churches were established throughout the southern third of the Sudan.
The missions began medical work, literacy classes, schools and clinics. Later, other western missionary agencies became active among the southern Sudanese, including the Sudan Interior Mission, the largest such agency to be involved.
The continuance of an evangelical witness in Sudan is due in part to the fact that early missionaries provided basic training for qualified converts, so that these would eventually be able to take over the spiritual leadership of their own people. This also freed the missionaries to move on to other towns and villages with the gospel. When, in 1964, Sudan became independent from Britain, and it became obvious that the northern Muslim government would not allow freedom of movement for foreign missionaries, the final ‘Sudanisation’ of the churches became inevitable.
Northern Sudanese Muslims make up the majority of Sudan’s population and have ruled the whole of Sudan since independence. Successive Muslim governments have not looked kindly on the spread of the gospel among the southern Sudanese. Following independence, tensions between black African Sudanese and Arab northerners increased, as the African Sudanese felt increasingly under-represented in government and deprived of economic and other privileges. Eventually, civil war broke out. A southern liberation movement has been fighting the Muslim-dominated army for years.
About ten years ago, a military take-over of the civilian government finally resulted in the State becoming publicly committed to the Islamisation of all Sudan. The semi-secular constitution was replaced by an Islamic one enforcing Muslim shari’a (law). The Islamic government has used every tactic – economic, educational and military – to ‘Islamise’ the south. Muslim ‘missionaries’ and relief workers from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have worked closely with the Muslim government to that end. Iran and Saudi Arabia have supported the government’s attempts to crush the southern rebellion and enforce Islam.
Dr Hassan Turabi is the most powerful figure in the leadership of the northern Sudanese government. He master-minded the Islamic-dominated military coup d’etat which brought the present regime to power. His brother-in-law, El-Mahdy, served as Prime Minister of Sudan prior to the coup. El-Mahdy escaped house arrest and became a leader of the secularist opposition in neighbouring countries. He describes Turabi as ‘a ruthless power-hungry Islamic ideologue’.
Turabi’s own words confirm his brother-in-law’s assessment. In a news conference with the international media at the end of March, Turabi lashed out at ‘those enemies of Islam who are hampering the purification of the nation from infidelity and religious ignorance’. He went on to accuse outside forces of encouraging the spread of Christianity, especially among African Sudanese.
He added: ‘A major portion of the tribal leadership of these people have sold their people out to a religion which will keep them in ignorance, darkness, slavery and misery – Had they accepted our offer to embrace God’s only true religion (Islam), their people would have been far better off now and the nation would have become unified and prosperous. Only Islam could do away with all the problems of the African nations. Most of these problems exist because of the importation of Christianity into Africa’.
Dr Turabi admitted that African Sudanese have increasingly opted for Christianity, and that defections from Islam are occurring in both the south and north of Sudan. He claimed, however, that in time his Islamic movement would succeed in reversing the situation.