Sudanese Christians Welcome Refugees From the Capital
I visited Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, in January of 2022. The city felt like a thread pulled taut and ready to snap. I didn’t know it then, but it was in better shape then than it is now.
Dictator Omar Bashir had been ousted in a coup in 2019, and Sudan had been set to transition to democracy. But in autumn 2021, the military, led by general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, staged another coup and took over the government.
In 2022, civilians were protesting in the streets every other day. It seemed like the military shot and killed protesters at every demonstration. But the protests didn’t stop. Demonstrators set up roadblocks made of piles of bricks to slow down the tanks, and kept protesting.
That was the capital. Another town, Wad Madani, a little over 3 hours’ drive to the southeast, was also consumed with protests at that time. In fact, Wad Madani was a center of the resistance movement, but it was also a center for Christian hope and joy.
I had wanted to visit Wad Madani, but getting there was not guaranteed. Because of its part in the resistance movement an experienced expatriate living in Sudan said he would bet against my getting the required travel permits. They came through, somehow, and I’m glad they did. It give me the chance to experience firsthand the joyful witness of the Christian community in that town.
Joy and Unity in Wad Madani
Christians are a small minority in Sudan. Pew Research Center estimates they comprise about 5% of the population. Aggressive persecution — genocide, really — against Christianized tribes in the south of the country caused South Sudan to split off and become an independent nation in 2011.
Today, Sudan is the “Muslim” nation and South Sudan is the “Christian” nation, though the faith of many people in both nations is actually pagan or syncretistic, in practice. Nevertheless, Christians still exist in Sudan. And they are still shining a light there.
I was hosted in Wad Madani by a local pastor who invited me to join an outdoor interdenominational festival that was happening that week. It was one of many. Local congregations took turns hosting the other congregations in the town. Members from 12 local churches of different traditions gathered to sing and dance in worship together:
Even in the middle of revolution and counter-revolution, the small group of Christian fellowships in Wad Madani continues to demonstrate the hope and joy of Christ, in unity.
A Sudanese pastor in another country told me that although the churches in the capital Khartoum have been plagued with corruption and divisions in recent years, the churches in Wad Madani have been largely free from these problems. I saw Wad Madani as a place of light, a place where disciples in Jesus can truly be known by their love for each other.
The Collapse of Sudan
That was early in 2022. On Saturday, April 15, 2023, the fragile balance of power in Sudan fell apart entirely. Not content with second place, another general — Mohamed “Hemedti” Dagalo — mounted a coup against al-Burhan. Now the two rival generals are vying for power. Both claim to represent the best interests of the people of Sudan. Instead the conflict is destroying the country.
I live in another Middle Eastern country, in a city with large a community of Sudanese refugees. The Sudanese diaspora here is distraught. They had hoped, for a while, for a brighter future for their country. Now it looks like the country is on the way to becoming worse than before. It could become another Libya, another Somalia, another Yemen.
A Sudanese pastor here told his church that he has never been more afraid for Sudan in his life. That’s saying a lot, considering what has gone on in Sudan over the last few decades. Another Sudanese brother mentioned that a pastor he knows in Khartoum lost his brother on the first day of the fighting. A friend of mine said his uncle had been shot and wounded.
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The worst of it is urban warfare in Khartoum. This is a new development. Until now, the fighting in Sudan has been confined to hinterland regions like Darfur, Kordofan, and Blue Nile State. The central region of Khartoum had been a stable area, but no longer.
It is hard to overstate the magnitude of the disaster of warfare in Khartoum. Almost everyone in the Sudanese community where I live has friends or relatives in Khartoum. The city was already full of displaced people from other war-torn regions of Sudan, along with about 200,000 refugees from South Sudan (which collapsed into civil war shortly after gaining independence).
Much of the recent reporting on the Sudan crisis has been focused on the evacuation of expatriates from western nations. Hundreds of foreigners have been forced to evacuate from there. The entire U.S. Embassy staff was airlifted out by helicopter with assistance from SEAL Team Six on April 22.
Of course, not everyone is able to flee the country. Most locals certainly cannot. Thousands have fled into neighboring Chad and South Sudan, but millions more will have to stay and make the best of things in a war-torn country.
The Church Steps Up
Many Sudanese who cannot simply be helicoptered away are fleeing from Khartoum to Wad Madani, which so far in the conflict has been more stable than Khartoum.
This disaster has been a real opportunity for the church in Wad Madani to show the love of Jesus, as Christians welcoming refugees fleeing from the capital. A pastor ministering in Wad Madani told me via WhatsApp that there are more than 300 people sleeping in the local Evangelical school.
But the situation is looking bad. There may not be enough food and water in the area to support everyone congregating there. Throughout the country, aid organizations have had to withdraw staff and suspend operations. An American aid worker and his family, whom I visited while I was in Sudan in 2022, boarded a ferry in the middle of the night on April 25 to cross the Red Sea from Port Sudan to Saudi Arabia, along with hundreds of other refugees.
No one could blame them; how can a normal charity organization be effective in the middle of a war zone? But the withdrawal is especially difficult for a country like Sudan, which even before this war had become highly dependent on foreign aid.
A Sudanese pastor, who pastors the Sudanese ex-patriot/refugee community where I live, told me (in Arabic):
There is no organization currently helping in Wad Madani. There is no organization. The church just opened the school and there are families sleeping in the school. But still the aid is simply people bringing basic things, or inviting people into their homes. There is nothing like this from, say, the churches, or an organized group working with those people.
Because the news they are getting from Sudan about these problems is very limited. They aren’t aware of what is happening, or what to do — that there are these kinds of problems, or that people are fleeing to Wad Madani.
As the community of believers throughout the world, we need to be united with the church in Wad Madani and throughout Sudan. We should be ready to help provide aid, when the ability to help materializes. Above all, we should be united in prayer. We should not forget them, just because they are far away in Africa, and we are safe in America.
So let’s pray that God will strengthen the church in love and unity, so that in the middle of this historic disaster there will be one good thing: that the people of Sudan will meet Christ through the love of His followers.
Peter Rowden is a friend of The Stream living in the Middle East.