Churches Attacked in Khartoum

Holy Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, Khartoum, Sudan

By Published on May 24, 2023

As two rival generals battle for dominance in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, the situation for the Christian minority in the city has worsened. Several churches in Khartoum have been attacked this month. It could mark the beginning of an upsurge of persecution against Christians in Sudan.

Khartoum is divided by the confluence of the Nile into three cities: Khartoum proper, Khartoum North, also known as Bahri, and Omdurman. At least one intentional attack occurred in Khartoum proper, two more intentional attacks occurred in Omdurman, and two churches in Bahri were damaged in the fighting.

On Sunday, May 14, armed soldiers fired on churchgoers in the St. George (Mar Grigis) Coptic Orthodox Church in Omdurman, injuring four people. They also beat the priest. After the attack, both parties in the civil war blamed the other: The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) accused the Rapid Support Force (RSF), and the RSF blamed an “extremist” group in the SAF.

On May 16, the Anglican Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo announced that the All Saints Cathedral of the Episcopal Anglican Church of Sudan, also in Omdurman, had been occupied by the RSF and turned into a military station. The guard was threatened at gunpoint, and church vehicles were stolen.

Meanwhile, in Khartoum proper, the Coptic Virgin Mary Cathedral has also been occupied by the RSF as a military station.

Finally, in Bahri, another Coptic church was hit by a missile, and a Presbyterian church was set on fire by a nearby explosion.

A Return to the Bad Old Days?

In the days of dictator Omar Bashir, who ruled Sudan from 1989 to 2019, the Sudanese government had a program not merely to persecute Christians, but to carry out genocide. The Islamist government leaders wanted an Arab Muslim Sudan.

That meant that Black Africans (tribes of somewhat darker skin than the so-called “Arab” leaders of the nation), as well as Christians and Animists, were impurities to be erased. What followed was a program of rape and slaughter of the “African” tribes, in favor of the “Arab” tribes.

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This finally caused the south part of the country, which was dominated by darker-skinned Animist and Christian tribes, to break off and become the world’s newest country, South Sudan. What remained of Sudan, the north, was predominantly Muslim, and lighter skinned than the south, but there still remained darker skinned “African” tribes, as well as a minority of Christians and Animists scattered throughout the country. Persecution against them continued up until Omar Bashir was ousted in 2019.

The new government declared freedom of religion and a secular government, a dream that died when al-Burhan took control in 2021. But his grip on the country was unsure, and his attention was occupied with mass protests. So it was never clear whether he would eventually implement a program of persecution and genocide like that of his predecessor al-Bashir.

That question may be forever hypothetical, because on April 15 Sudan fell into civil war. General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as General Hemedti, the leader of the branch of the military called the Rapid Support Force (RSF), is currently fighting with al-Burhan for control of the country. It remains to be seen what either general’s uncontested rule would look like. But these recent attacks do not bode well for how Christians may be treated in the new regime.

Persecution or Random Violence?

Given this context, an important question arising from these attacks is, Are these attacks intentional persecution of Christians, or merely opportunistic raiding?

The RSF occupied the All Saints Cathedral and the Virgin Mary Cathedral close to the same time the raid was conducted on the St. George Coptic Church. This seems to support initial reports that the St. George attack was perpetrated by the usurping General Hemedti’s RSF, not the SAF. If so, the RSF’s accusation that “extremists” (presumably religious extremists) in al-Burhan’s army are to blame is probably libelous.

One local stated, “For exactly one week, the RSF have been entering the church as they please.” It appears that the RSF forces in the capital were instructed to rob and occupy churches. Whether the attacks are malicious or opportunistic, they reveal that General Hemedti and his RSF have no respect for the Christian non-combatants in Sudan.

On the positive side, the fact that both sides of the conflict are quick to blame the other for the attacks indicates that they care about how they appear in the eyes of the world. This makes sense, as they are battling not merely for strategic military dominance, but also for legitimacy.

The people of Sudan know what they want, and it is democracy and religious freedom. This is true for both Muslims and Christians, as I saw when I was in Sudan last year. The hope of peaceful revolution is too powerful to ignore. So both leaders want to style themselves as the rightful leader of the Sudanese people. So they will at least deny making gratuitous attacks on religious minorities — though it apparently doesn’t mean abstaining from them.

The Endurance of the Church

Christians who remain in Sudan are standing strong despite the persecution. One friend of mine, the Reverend Musa Kody of the Nile Theology Seminary in Bahri, stated (translated from Arabic):

We, as Christians, reject attacks on all places of worship, both churches and mosques. Rather, they must be respected, as a matter of religious freedom and respect for the personal beliefs of the populace.

And following the St. George attack, he shared this word of encouragement with the community of Sudanese believers:

Beloved of the Lord! We must agree to not ignore, but rather denounce the attack against the churches, which is something natural from the People of the World against the Church of God, because we are not of this world. As far as attempts to identify the perpetrator are concerned — now is not the time, because everyone is making himself out to be innocent and accusing other unnamed parties of perpetrating this evil act. Our Lord is present, and he is righteous, and he is aware of every detail, and he will put an end to everything in his time. No one is above the law of the Just Judge, and that is enough!

Please pray for the churches of Sudan.

 

Peter Rowden is a friend of The Stream living in the Middle East.

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