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Reformed Witness in the Sudan & South Sudan

Before the independence of South Sudan in 2011, the Sudan was the largest country in Africa, bordering nine other nations. The term "Sudan" comes from Arabic and means "the place of black people". Ancient Egyptians called the Sudan "Cush." The Romans called it "Nubia." Sudan, located immediately up the Nile from Egypt, enjoys a very rich diversity of terrain, climate and ethnic composition and is endowed with many natural resources. Many considered it the African country with the greatest potential after South Africa. Yet, wrought by continual war and upheaval, Sudan and South Sudan have become some of the poorest countries on earth.

Population

There are two kinds of people in the Sudan. The northerners are Arabic-speaking and largely Sunni Muslims. They tend to be relatively light-skinned, coming from Arab or Egyptian stock. Northern Sudanese Muslims constitute the majority of the population and have ruled the country for many years. In 2011 South Sudan split off to become an independent nation. This landlocked, tribal country is rich in resources but very undeveloped and poverty-stricken. About half the population is under 18 years of age. In 2013 a brutal civil war broke out in South Sudan and raged until a unity deal resulted in an uneasy coalition government in 2020. All hope for peace and stability.

The southern Sudanese are black African people belonging to many tribes. More than 200 languages and dialects are spoken. The largest four are the Dinka, Nuer, Nuba and Shilluk. The enmity between these African tribes and the colonizing Arabic-speaking Muslims of the north insulated them against the islamization that occurred in the centre and west of Africa. The Nubian tribe established a nominal, ritualistic Christian kingdom for more than seven centuries that later embraced Islam. All other southern Sudanese people practised various forms of animism until this century.

Colonial History

During the colonial era, the Sudan came under British control. While the British did not advocate the spread of Christianity, their presence provided unified authority and stability as well as a degree of freedom. This atmosphere was helpful for Gospel outreach first in northern Sudan and later in the rest of the country.

Christian Ministries

At the end of the 19th century Reformed missions in Egypt were very successful. The translation and publication of the Arabic Bible brought about an immense spiritual revival among the large Coptic "Christian" minority in Egypt. Many Presbyterian congregations were organized throughout the country. Many Egyptian Presbyterians took jobs in the Sudan as part of the British civil service. So, Arabic congregations were established in Khartoum and other northern Sudanese towns.

In the meantime, American Presbyterians and British Anglicans began to establish mission stations throughout southern Sudan. At that time most of the Presbyterians and Anglicans were Evangelical and Reformed. Anglicans worked for the most part among the Dinka tribe, the Presbyterians worked largely among the Nuer and Shilluk people. Their work was richly blessed by the Lord. Many southern Sudanese were converted and churches were organized throughout the southern third of the Sudan. Their work involved not only verbal Gospel proclamation but also deeds of mercy such as medical work, literacy classes and the establishing of schools and clinics. Other parachurch and independent western mission agencies also became active among southern Sudanese people.

One major factor contributed to the lasting success of evangelical Reformed witness in the Sudan -- the missionaries were eager to quickly provide basic training for qualified converts to take over the spiritual leadership of their own people. This freed them to keep moving on to other towns and villages with the Gospel message.

Muslim Government Opposition

In 1964 the northern Muslim-dominated government gained independence from British rule. It clamped down upon Christian missions. This led to the "sudanization" of church work in the country.

Also, tensions between the southern African Sudanese and the Arab northerners increased. Black African Sudanese felt underrepresented and deprived of privileges. So began a long civil war seeking to gain liberation. In the last ten years before South Sudan's independence, a military take-over and introduction of an Islamic Constitution heightened the tension and armed conflict.

The Islamic government resorted to the use of economic, educational, military and other tactics to seek to Islamize southerners who have become more and more attracted to Christianity. By God's grace, the church in the Sudan and South Sudan has not only survived but also continues to grow. Unofficial reports indicate the number of those associated with Presbyterian churches of Sudan and South Sudan is estimated to be about 2 million. Through the conversion of the Nuer people of South Sudan, the door also opened wide in the last years for the conversion of hundreds of thousands of Nuer people in southwestern Ethiopia.

Sudanese and South Sudanese Christians Today

African Sudanese and South Sudanese Christians are among the poorest people in the world. Yet they are persistent and steadfast believers who know what it is to remain loyal to Christ under very harsh conditions of life. They tend to be very zealous for the conversion of the rest of their animist tribesmen. The believing communities in the Sudan and South Sudan are among the largest and fastest growing in all of Africa.

Several significant problems face the Reformed communities in the Sudan and South Sudan. The most serious is the lack of trained evangelists, pastors, elders and deacons. The majority of church officers and other active workers lacks the most elementary biblical training needed for discipling and building up their own people. Those engaged in the training of elders and lay evangelists are under no illusion as to the immensity of the biblical task which they must face. It will take serious and active efforts of biblical and theological education over the next 30 years or more to catch up with the needs of the Sudanese churches for trained workers.

Lack of food and medical care in South Sudan has given rise to one of the highest mortality rates in the world. The desperate economic situation has created a class of professional clergymen knowledgeable in fund-raising, who live comfortably away from their own people in surrounding countries. There has also been a wave of immigration of educated Sudanese and South Sudanese believers to prosperous and stable countries like the USA, Canada, Australia and other countries in Europe. These include theologically trained young men. Thus, the Sudanese and South Sudanese church is deprived of precious potential leadership.

Prayer Support

Another matter for fervent prayer is the racial divide among Sudanese and South Sudanese Reformed people. Tribal tensions and conflicts have spilled over into the church. Tensions over the distribution of relief materials among factions within the same tribes remind us of similar tensions in the early church as recorded in Acts 6.

Still there is much cause for joy. Arab and African Sudanese and South Sudanese believers have learned to care for and fellowship with one another in the Reformed churches in northern Sudan. The average Sudanese and South Sudanese believer is very teachable and receptive to instruction from God's word. The Gospel has also had an encouraging impact among the Nubian Muslims. Even among Muslim northerners, there are indications of growing interest in studying the Arabic Bible. There are confirmed reports of conversions among Sudanese and South Sudanese army personnel and other northern Muslims.

The Future

As we contemplate the affairs of our Sudanese and South Sudanese brethren, let us remember that the spiritual battle for the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the Sudanese and South Sudanese people is far from over. Our concern and prayer support for them ought not to be governed by a sentimental or "this-world" agenda of the media. Let us also guard against viewing the battle as political or military, or becoming overly burdened with stories of sufferings and persecution. Let us remember that the Almighty Lord, in His infinite wisdom allows the church a measure of suffering for her own good and His own glory. Let us pray for the conversion of many more northern Sudanese Muslims through the enduring faith of the suffering Sudanese and South Sudanese church. It is a privilege to be part of bringing the gospel to Sudan and South Sudan, and building up God's people there through the ministries of the Middle East Reformed Fellowship: broadcasting the gospel in Arabic over the radio, providing for the training and support of Sudanese and South Sudanese pastors and evangelists through their churches and diaconal aid to help alleviate the great physical needs as part of the overall church witness.

Learn more about the work of MERF and its ministries through a variety of articles. These deal both with current work and the history of missions in the Middle East.

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