the Church in the Sudan and Saint Bakhita

In January of 2001, I had the privilege of interviewing William Saunders for an article about the persecuted Church in the Sudan. Just three months earlier, Pope John Paul II had canonized the first Sudanese saint, Saint Josephine Margaret Bakhita, and so Saunders told me a bit about her in the context of helping me understand the situation of the Church in the Sudan.

Since Pope Benedict XVI references Saint Bakhita at the beginning of his encyclical, Spe Salvi, as a model of Christian hope, I’ve decided to reprint my article about the Church in the Sudan.

The Church in the Sudan Gives Witness to Christ During Persecution

This article originally appeared in the April 2001 edition of The Catholic Servant.

“In the holy days of Lent the ‘offering’ assumes a deeper meaning, because it is not just giving something from the surplus to relieve one’s conscience, but to truly take upon one’s self the misery present in the world. To look at the suffering face and the conditions of misery of many brothers and sisters forces us to share at least part of our own goods with those in difficulty…. The world expects from Christians a consistent witness of communion and solidarity.”

These words, taken from Pope John Paul II’s message for Lent 2001, invite all the faithful to examine the suffering face of Christ present in today’s world. The image of the suffering Christ manifests itself vividly today in the trials borne by the people of the Sudan. William Saunders, an attorney from Washington, DC, who is the founder and director of Sudan Relief and Rescue, Inc., spoke about the sufferings of the Sudanese people at a conference on evangelization held this past January at the University of Saint Thomas.

The Sudan, Africa’s largest country, is situated just south of Egypt and has a population of nearly 30 million people. A third of the population lives in the southern part of the country, where about half of the Sudanese people are Christian, and half are animists. Since 1983, when civil war broke out in the Sudan under increasing pressure from Islamic fundamentalists to impose sharia (Islamic law) on the country, more than 1.9 million people have died from war-related causes: starvation, bombings and other atrocities. This death toll—which is larger than the number of deaths due to the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda combined—averages out to about 14 deaths every hour since the outbreak of the war. Another 4 million people have been displaced from their homes. This is an Islamic holy war, or jihad, carried out presently by the ruling government, the radical fundamentalist group known as the National Islamic Front (NIF). The NIF, representing only about seven percent of the Sudanese population, overthrew the elected government in 1989 and immediately intensified persecution of all non-Muslims in the Sudan. William Saunders notes that the Christian population—in particular the Catholic Church—has been a special target for persecution, since it is seen as an obstacle to the NIF’s goal to make Islam the sole religion of the country. Catholic churches, hospitals, and schools are a regular target of bombings and other forms of oppression. However, moderate Muslims, who are tolerant of Christians and other religious traditions within the population, are also persecuted by the government.

The jihad—which seeks to eliminate all non-Muslim elements of the population through tactics such as torture, bombing, and the withholding of food and water from non-Muslim populations—operates on the premise that Islam is the rightful religion of the Sudan. However, Christianity was the religion of the land for hundreds of years before the rise of Islam in the seventh century. In fact, as Saunders notes, the Church in the Sudan has apostolic roots. According to the book of Acts, one of the first non-Jewish converts to the faith was an Ethiopian from the court of Candace, who received the gospel from the deacon Philip. Scripture scholars say that Candace is a reference to modern-day Sudan. Christianity was eventually suppressed by the rise of Islam, but made a revival in the nineteenth century through missionary efforts. Then, in the mid-twentieth century, when the Sudan achieved independence from Britain, Christians again began to experience intensified religious persecution.

Since the southern part of Sudan is almost entirely non-Muslim and non-Arab, persecution is currently most intense in this area. Bombing raids are carried out regularly from high altitudes; according to Saunders, the precision of the bombing is not as important to the government as the creation of an atmosphere of terror. Many people have been forced to seek shelter in remote areas, such as the higher elevations of the Nuba Mountains in the south. Interestingly, the Christian population has been growing in the Sudan, flourishing amidst the persecution.

The Sudan also has a long history of support for the slave trade, and the present government has legitimized the practice of slavery; in a holy war, it is not considered a sin to take slaves. In a gesture that rankled the conscience of the present government, the Catholic Church canonized its first Sudanese saint in October of 2000, Saint Josephine Margaret Bakhita, a woman kidnapped and sold as a slave late in the nineteenth century. Saint Bakhita eventually arrived in Italy, was emancipated, and became a member of the Canossian Daughters of Charity. Her writings, which document the torture she endured as a slave over a number of years, are also a beautiful testament to her virtue, willingness to forgive, and the natural goodness that contributed to a holy Christian life when she was later catechized and received into the Catholic Church.

Saunders says that although there are regional efforts to put pressure on the Sudanese government, complicating factors have given the NIF some leverage. A border war between Sudan’s neighbors to the east—Eritrea and Ethiopia—has prevented these countries from uniting their efforts against the oppressive Sudanese regime. Also, the government is now profiting from the Sudan’s newly-discovered oil resources; by selling oil to other countries—most notably, to China—the Sudanese government has obtained a lucrative source of income to fund the jihad.

The greatest sign of hope for the persecuted Church in the Sudan has been the prophetic presence of a courageous, native-born Catholic bishop, Reverend Macram Max Gassis. He is bishop of the diocese of El Obeid, an area of Sudan that is twice the size of Italy. Named a bishop in 1988, he began speaking to international organizations such as the US Congress and the United Nations about the Sudanese atrocities. The NIF declared him a criminal for exposing the government’s human rights abuses, and he now lives in exile in neighboring Kenya. Saunders says that Bishop Gassis regularly carries out clandestine operations into Sudan to bring in supplies of food, water, seeds, and building supplies for wells, schools, churches and hospitals. The bishop also helps educate and house 1,200 orphaned children. In one region he visits, northern Bahr-el-Ghazal, there have been no resident priests for over twenty years. The faith is spread by courageous catechists, many of whom are women trained as part of Bishop Gassis’ efforts to advance the education of women in a country where women are considered to be second-class citizens. Gassis calls the catechists “heroes of love,” who live under the threat of torture and even murder. The bishop makes great efforts to be present to his people, holding clandestine Masses in the thick of sycamore trees for hundreds of Sudanese Catholics at Christmas and Easter. Sudanese Catholics travel many miles to receive with joy their faithful shepherd. During the holy days, the government will often launch bombing raids because they know the Catholic population will be gathered in larger numbers at these times.

William Saunders met Bishop Gassis in 1997, when Gassis was in Washington, DC, speaking about slavery and genocide in the Sudan. At the request of Bishop Gassis, Saunders founded Sudan Relief and Rescue, Inc., an non-profit 501(c)(3) organization designed to fund and support the work Gassis is doing in his native land. This is volunteer work for Saunders, whose livelihood is his pro-life and human rights work as an attorney.

Saunders has traveled with Bishop Gassis to the Sudan, notably during the Christmas season in 1998, and has moving stories to tell about visiting with orphaned children, viewing damage from government bombings, and participating in clandestine liturgies in the Nuba Mountains. Saunders is not simply a human rights activist; he is also, like Bishop Gassis, a man of deep faith who can penetrate the meaning of the suffering of the Sudanese people. “The persecuted Catholics in the Sudan are offering their sufferings for the whole Church! As Bishop Gassis says, the Church of the Sudan is a donor Church, offering up its sufferings on behalf of all the faithful,” says Saunders. They are expressing their communion with us; how will we express the same to them?

Acutely aware of the gift of the Sudanese people, Saunders notes the great witness they offer to the Church in this country, and notes that the current situation gives us the chance to serve our persecuted brothers and sisters across the globe. “If you say, ‘I am a Catholic’ in the Sudan, you are going to suffer. So if you don’t mean it, you don’t say it! In the materialism of America today, our enemies are more subtle and we don’t realize the compromises we’re making. It’s a great blessing for Christians here to realize what it costs to be Christians in other places; it wakes us up here in the United States so that we can help to alleviate the suffering of others and build up the Church.”

What, practically, can we do to reach out to our Sudanese brothers and sisters? First, Saunders says, we can offer our prayers. Second, we can make financial contributions to Sudan Relief and Rescue (SRR) to assist Bishop Gassis in his work of building hospitals and schools, training catechists and seminarians, caring for orphans, and providing food, water and medical treatment. While there are other relief organizations, SRR reaches territory that no other organization can reach: “The UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan, a kind of a consortium of relief groups, had to negotiate an agreement with the government in order to be able to deliver food. The government won’t let them go into these areas where we are going. They do a lot of good in other parts of the country; I’m just saying that if you want to help in the areas served by Bishop Gassis, just about the only way to do it is through our organization.” Third, we can ask our elected representatives to push for a UN-backed no-fly zone over central and southern Sudan in order to end the bombing raids.

As Pope John Paul II noted last October during the canonization of Saint Bakhita, the plight of the Sudanese people is the responsibility not only of world governments, but of every Christian: “I plead with the international community: do not continue to ignore this immense human tragedy. I invite the whole Church to invoke the intercession of St. Bakhita upon all our persecuted and enslaved brothers and sisters, especially in Africa and in her native Sudan, that they may know reconciliation and peace.” May this Lent be a privileged time for Christians worldwide to express their communion with the persecuted Church of the Sudan.

To contact the Bishop Gassis Sudan Relief Fund, write to: PO Box 7084, Merriffield, VA 22116-9798 or call toll-free: 1-888-488-0348. You may also visit the organization’s website at: www.bishopgassis.org. All donations are tax-deductible.

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