Season of Peace in Sudan
February 1, 2004
by Tom Layton
Looking back, Pastor Apollo Reuben can praise God for the day in 1996 when the government bulldozed his church in the outskirts of Khartoum, Sudan. Out of the root of that one congregation, three vibrant new churches have been born.
Bulldozers and bombs that were intended to wipe out Christianity in Sudan have had the opposite effect. Just as in the persecuted New Testament Church, "Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went" (Acts 8:4, NIV). In Khartoum today, it is estimated that there are four times as many churches as there were in 1990 when persecution intensified. Meanwhile, international Christian concern and activism has accelerated the peace process in Sudan.
Those dynamics may help explain a change of heart toward Christians by the Muslim-dominated government. As negotiators made progress to end 20 years of civil war, Sudanese officials invited Franklin Graham, Samaritan's Purse and Operation Christmas Child to come to the capital during the Christmas season. In a place where Christians have had little access to power, Franklin discussed peace and religious freedom with President Umar al-Bashir and taped a message for national TV on what the Bible says about peace—and the Prince of Peace.
He also met with other leaders of the government and the opposition, plus Christian pastors and Muslim clerics. And he visited a government-run children's hospital to deliver some of the 65,000 shoe boxes filled with Christmas gifts sent by Operation Christmas Child.
Franklin's presence in Khartoum encouraged local Christian leaders. "God has raised Franklin Graham to be a voice for the voiceless," said James Alexander, a pastor for the Africa Inland Church who serves on the national leadership team for Operation Christmas Child in Sudan. "Peace has not just happened. God raised up somebody, and that man is pushing the issue. Now peace is coming to Sudan."
Sudan has been divided by civil war since 1983 when al-Bashir's predecessor imposed shari'a (Islamic law), prompting a rebellion in the predominantly Christian south. About two million deaths have been attributed to the conflict. Complicating the situation, Sudan (once home to Osama bin Laden) is one of seven countries that has been on the United States' list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The long-stagnant peace negotiations have gained momentum since President Bush signed the Sudan Peace Act in October 2002.
Samaritan's Purse has been working in southern Sudan for about 15 years and currently operates two hospitals as well as other humanitarian projects. To help needy people in areas controlled by rebels, Samaritan's Purse sometimes had to defy bans and endure attacks from the Khartoum government. President al-Bashir indicated that times have changed when he told Franklin, "We welcome you who have come through the back door for years to come through the front door now."
Franklin and al-Bashir met for 35 minutes on Dec. 8 in the presidential palace in Khartoum. "I hope as peace comes to your nation, that equality will come and that Christians will be able to worship as Muslims can," Franklin said. "Muslims and Christians can live together peaceably, and I believe that pleases God."
Al-Bashir responded, "The problems of religious freedom have been tied to the war. As soon as the war is over, the pressure against Christians will be over. We have to be sure that the freedom of religion of Christians is not less than the freedom of Islam."
In a gesture of goodwill, the government permitted the Samaritan's Purse DC-3 to fly from Khartoum across battle lines to deliver thousands of Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes to several locations where Samaritan's Purse has been providing humanitarian relief. It was the first time in 20 years that such flights have been permitted. In the Nuba Mountains, volunteers distributed gifts to hundreds of children at a war-damaged church that was recently rebuilt by Samaritan's Purse.
The gift-filled shoe boxes were among 65,000 brought from the United States to Sudan aboard one of the world's largest cargo planes, the Antonov 124. Many of the gifts were given to children of displaced families who came to Khartoum to escape the war and who now live in vast mud-built shantytowns that surround Khartoum. It is estimated that two million displaced people live in greater Khartoum.
Reuben, the pastor whose church was bulldozed in 1996, is typical. He and his family had to run for their lives in 1995 when raiders burned their village in the south. Most escaped to Uganda, where they now live as refugees, but Reuben has found his calling in Khartoum. His newest church is called Soba Aradi. "Aradi" means mud, and "Soba" honors the name of a sixth-century Christian kingdom that stood at the forks of the Nile River.
Said Alexander, "The church is praying that the Kingdom will be restored. And the Church will grow."