By Tim Rice
“How can you guide your flock when you, as the shepherd, are also being persecuted?” Pastor Al Kam Jaranabi asks while sitting under an acacia tree with other church leaders in the war-torn Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Pastor Jaranabi raises a valid point: maintaining faith during wartime is no easy challenge, especially when you are the main target.
Since 2011, the Sudan government has sought to defeat rebel fighters in the Nuba Mountains who, after years of neglect from the central government, demanded greater autonomy in their remote border region. The rebel movement has fought the government to a cyclical standstill with no clear winners since the conflict started.
Unable to defeat guerilla fighters, the government in Khartoum targets civilians in a bid to drive the population out, or into submission. “They target us purposefully,” said Pastor Emmanuel Ofendi, “whether its your farmland, your school –even your church, they try to push people into the government-controlled areas.”
The Sudan government’s opposition to the Church is no secret. Sudan authorities have imprisoned pastors and evangelists, refused to issue building permits for new churches, and even bulldozed several churches in broad daylight.
It is within this environment that pastors in the Nuba Mountains try to spread the gospel. Pastor Ismael Suleiman remembers how challenging it was to even become a pastor. Suleiman had to walk for two days to reach a theological college in the rebel-controlled capital, Kauda, fraught with dangers along the way.
“While we were walking to Kauda we got ambushed by a government militia,” Suleiman recalled. “Imagine, we were just trying to go to our graduation ceremony.” The gunmen killed two of Suleiman’s colleagues while he hid in tall grass. “We were just hiding in the grass where everyone could see us, but God somehow covered us, and they walked past without seeing us.” The incident helped strengthen Suleiman’s faith and confidence that the Lord would protect him through all the challenges of war.
With warplanes circling above and cut communication lines, finding time and means to preach is difficult. The year 2015 was especially bad, Pastor Jaranabi remembers. In 2015, over 1,000 bombs, including cluster bombs, were dropped on civilian targets in the Nuba Mountains, according to Nuba Reports, a media house that monitors these attacks. The Sudan government has dropped over 4,000 bombs on civilians in Nuba since the conflict began. “It reached a point where believers and pastors alike were distracted by the bombings, we were too busy running for shelter, searching for what little food may be available,” Jaranabi admits.
This is the crux of the problem: the war has displaced communities to the point where believers are scattered with no easy means of communication to re-engage with the faithful. “We pray as individuals all the time, the war encourages that,” Jaranabi said --with many fellow pastors chuckling in agreement. “But we never prayed together as Church leaders, or even knew of each others’ welfare until now.” Pastor Jaranabi made these comments while attending a pastor’s conference in Ursalia at the Ursalia Missionary Church last November. It was the first time for him to reconnect with other pastors from within his home county, he said. One of many successful conferences, over 100 attendees participated in the event, bringing together pastors from several counties and denominations.
Since 2015, Persecution Project Foundation (PPF) has organized many pastor’s conferences, inviting church leaders from all over the Nuba Mountains to congregate, reflect, share experiences and organize.
PPF has managed to get some church leaders together for the first time, and now the church community is requesting more and more conferences to take place.
Over 800 participants attended a conference in Kurchi, Um Dorein County --the largest yet, with evangelists, pastors and parishioners in attendance, according to PPF’s Field Coordinator Kuti Rajab. “We have to remember the church body scattered in the war,” Rajab said. “Some pastors were losing hope since they had no means of coming together, no means of transport –so we thought of the conference as a means to bring them together.”
“It encourages all of us as pastors who come together, to greet one another, to share what the Lord is doing in our areas, and to see that people from outside Nuba are also standing with us,” said Pastor Yusuf Alferic, who walked nearly two days to attend the event. “This war cuts you off from the outside world – even those around you. By attending these events –it gives you the strength to continue spreading the gospel. It gives you hope.”
Sitting next to Pastor Alferic, Pastor Abdurahman Watkaju agrees. The conferences strengthen and improve their understanding of their faith. “Through this conference, it gives us unity and changes the idea that there are differences within denominations but [instead] we are actually one,” Watkaju said. Before unhealthy competition existed between roughly five Christian denominations in Nuba, Watkaju explained. “But now, we try to respect all of the denominations and focus more, as we should, on God.”
Unlike in Sudan’s capital Khartoum, religious tolerance thrives in Nuba culture, where it is not uncommon to see Muslim and Christians within one family. “The government tries to target us using religion but this cannot happen here, we respect one another,” Pastor Ofendi said.
At the end of the Ursalia conference, a number of plans were formed during the meetings – including a way to spread the gospel to the camps of internally-displaced persons (IDPs). The pastors have voluntarily agreed to work in pairs and reach out to several areas of displacement to offer prayer and worship where access to a church remains limited, Ofendi added. One activity that seems to occur at every conference PPF helps facilitate: a corporate prayer for the war to end. “I don’t want this war, none of us do, and we always pray for it to end,” said Pastor Suleiman.