PICTURE edition 44: The church in Sudan: amazing growth amidst persecution

1. History
Sudan is Africa’s largest country and the name means Land of the Black People, a term coined by the Arabs to describe the Nubian peoples living below Egypt. The modern map is a result of British imperialism but the this is the home of the ancient Nubian Kingdom of Cush which was deeply entwined in the affairs of Egypt. Sudan even have their own pyramids! The Cushite kingdom lasted thousands of years, right up to the 4th Century AD and this kingdom is specifically mentioned in Isaiah 18:1 and Habakkuk 3:7. In fact Numbers 12:1 says Moses’ second wife was a Cushite.

After the 4th Century the once formidable kingdom disintegrated into three separate Christian kingdoms. These kingdoms were able to repel the Arab Empire on several occasions and thus kept their political autonomy for many centuries. This ushered in a golden age for this Afro-Byzantine Christian region through to the 11th Century. In this era the Nubians developed an alphabet based on Coptic and women enjoyed high social status and access to education and land. They often used their wealth to endow churches and church paintings. Even the royal succession was matri-lineal, with the son of the king’s sister being the rightful heir!

From the 12th Century onward migration from Egypt increased and in the 15th Century Sudan was overrun by Muslim Arab Bedouins. Sufi holy men then began to spread Islam up and down the Nile communities. However, the Sudanese folk Islam that evolved preserved many rituals stemming from the prior Christian traditions until the recent times. In 1821 the Ottoman Turks conquered Sudan, and in 1896 the British wrestled control of the country, keeping it until independence in 1956.

2. Today
Sudan today is a byword for misery and conflict and it was oil that provided Sudan with 90% of its income to fight those wars. Life expectancy for Sudan’s 50 million people is low and education was largely missing for a decade for many of its citizens. The vastness of Sudan’s territory and the racial mixing of Arabs with Nubians over many centuries has resulted in some 597 ethnic groups and 134 languages.

Civil war has raged throughout most of its time as an independent nation. This is because of the country’s increasingly violent Islamism and the remarkable growth of Christianity, particularly in the south. After the deaths of countless southerners and the displacement of 2.5 million people, peace was finally secured in 2005.  North and South Sudan then began to slowly rebuild infrastructure.

On the 9th of July 2011, South Sudan became an independent country, the worlds newest. The two nations today enjoy an uneasy peace. Sadly, within a year or two of South Sudan’s independence fighting broke out between its two major tribal groups, the Dinka and the restless Nuer tribes. This conflict alone cost another 50,000 lives and displaced millions.

However, southern Christians were not the only ones fighting the government. In Darfur some 300,000 people were killed when separatists defied northern control. As I said, Sudan is a byword for misery. Today Sudan is in the grip of a Chinese led investment boom, with all the usual Chinese strings attached.

3. True Christianity
As mentioned, Christianity came here very early and put down deep roots. However, these were ripped out one by one over the last thousand years. The destructive radical Islamist vision of president Al Bashir being just the latest wave of forced Islamisation. Most churches, Christian hospitals and schools in the north were systematically destroyed by his government. Never-the-less, a remarkable flowering of true Christianity has been underway since independence. From just 1.6 million in 1980, Christians now number some 12 million, mostly in the centre and south. South Sudan is now 80% Christian, but still very tribal.

Just as remarkable is the turning away from Islam of many people in the centre and north of Sudan after witnessing the atrocities of the government which ruled in the name of a puritanical Wahhabist Islam. Whole villages and tribes have crossed over to Jesus, even though the penalty is death. Churches are being planted in previously unreached areas as many refugees return home with the fire of God in their hearts. In fact Sudan is one of the few established Muslim countries that is losing significant parts of its population to Christianity. This goes a long way to explaining why Satan tried to use force to squash the growing church, but it backfired, as it did the day Jesus died on the cross!

Sudan is now very open to the Gospel as most northerners now have much sympathy for their southern brothers. This has led to some unusually open doors to preach in the north. Many Sudanese studying in Egypt are also coming to faith. Most new Christians in Sudan are pentecostal believers, and the church is now one of the fastest growing in the world at over 8% per year. The blood of the martyrs truly is the seed of the church!

4. Prayer Points
Pray for the current outpouring the accelerate!
Pray for the next generation of believers who don’t know war, that their faith will not grow cold
Pray for the millions deeply affected by the war
Pray for continued church growth inside previously Muslim areas
Pray for the thousands of ex-child soldiers, and those damaged by them
Pray for the safety of South Sudan
Pray for the increasing number of Ethiopian and Nigerian missionaries appearing in Sudan
Pray for leaders, many of whom do not have any training
Pray for the 100,000 southerners who were abducted and sold into slavery in the north
Pray for southerners to not only forgive the northerners, but to reach out to them with the love of Jesus
Pray for the newly Christianised Nuer, Mabaan, Uduk, Dinka, Moru, Toposa, Acholi and Nuba tribes, that they will in turn reach others.

Next week: Syria

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