South Sudan, officially the Republic of South Sudan, is a landlocked country in northeastern Africa. It is bordered by Ethiopia to the east, Kenya to the southeast, Uganda to the south, the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the southwest, the Central African Republic to the west, and Sudan to the north. The White Nile River passes through the center of the country. South Sudan has a population of around 8 million and a predominantly rural, subsistence economy. South Sudan had been united with northern Sudan in one state until 9 July 2011,when it gained its independence after a national referendum.
The Southern Sudanese are African people belonging to many tribes. More than 200 languages and dialects are spoken in South Sudan. The largest four are the Dinka, Nuer, Nuba and Shilluk. The enmity between these African tribes and the colonizing Arabic-speaking Muslims of the north insulated them against the islamization that occurred in the centre and west of Africa. The Nubian tribe established a nominal, ritualistic Christian kingdom for more than seven centuries that later embraced Islam. All other southern Sudanese people practised various forms of animism until the 20th century.
During the colonial era, the Sudan came under British control. While the British did not advocate the spread of Christianity, their presence provided unified authority and stability as well as a degree of freedom. This atmosphere was helpful for Gospel outreach first in northern Sudan and later in the rest of the country. In 1964 the northern Muslim-dominated government gained independence from British rule. It clamped down upon Christian missions. This led to the "sudanization" of church work in the country.
Also, tensions between the southern African Sudanese and the Arab northerners increased. Black African Sudanese felt underrepresented and deprived of privileges. When Sudan gained its independence, it was with the understanding that the southerners would be able to participate fully in the political system. When the Arab Khartoum government reneged on its promises, a mutiny began that led to two prolonged periods of conflict (1955-1972 and 1983-2005) in which perhaps 2.5 million people died - mostly civilians - due to starvation and drought. So began a long civil war seeking to gain liberation. In the last ten years, a military take-over and introduction of an Islamic Constitution heightened the tension and armed conflict. Ongoing peace talks finally resulted in a Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in January 2005. As part of this agreement the south was granted a six-year period of autonomy to be followed by a referendum on final status. The result of this referendum, held in January 2011, was a vote of 98% in favor of secession. Independence was attained on 9 July 2011.
The Islamic government had resorted to the use of economic, educational, military and other tactics to seek to Islamize southerners who have become more and more attracted to Christianity. By God's grace, the church in the Sudan has not only survived but also continues to grow. Unofficial reports indicate the number of those associated with Presbyterian churches of Sudan is estimated to be 1.8 million. Through the conversion of the Nuer people of South Sudan, the door also opened wide in the last years for the conversion of hundreds of thousands of Nuer people in southwestern Ethiopia.
At the end of the 19th century Reformed missions in Egypt were very successful. The translation and publication of the Arabic Bible brought about an immense spiritual revival among the large Coptic "Christian" minority in Egypt. Many Presbyterian congregations were organized throughout the country. Many Egyptian Presbyterians took jobs in the Sudan as part of the British civil service. So, Arabic congregations were established in Khartoum and other northern Sudanese towns.
In the meantime, American Presbyterians and British Anglicans began to establish mission stations throughout southern Sudan. At that time most of the Presbyterians and Anglicans were Evangelical and Reformed. Anglicans worked for the most part among the Dinka tribe, the Presbyterians worked largely among the Nuer and Shilluk people. Their work was richly blessed by the Lord. Many southern Sudanese were converted and churches were organized throughout the southern third of the Sudan. Their work involved not only verbal Gospel proclamation but also deeds of mercy such as medical work, literacy classes and the establishing of schools and clinics. Other parachurch and independent western mission agencies also became active among southern Sudanese people.
One major factor contributed to the lasting success of evangelical Reformed witness in the Sudan—the missionaries were eager to quickly provide basic training for qualified converts to take over the spiritual leadership of their own people. This freed them to keep moving on to other towns and villages with the Gospel message.
Needs of South Sudan
Sudan has had civil war thirty-eight of the fifty-three years since independence from the British. The last war ended between Muslim north Sudan and Christian and animist south Sudan with peace accords signed in January 2005. A few infrastructure projects got underway in parts of South Sudan, and two million refugees in surrounding countries returned to their villages to begin planting crops and raising livestock.
A vast country of far-flung villages, South Sudan continues to face monumental problems-lack of health care, lack of education, lack of utilities and infrastructure, internal strife among leaders, and violent tribal conflicts. If that is not enough, famine is imminent due to recent drought. Malnourishment is already a problem for most. The South Sudanese vice-president, Dr. Riak Machar, a confessing evangelical Christian, made a plea for 40 million US dollars to keep people from starvation over the next three months. Donors have been reluctant to channel funds through government authorities due to evidences of corruption and misuse of funds. Much of the government's share of oil revenues are not accounted for.
With guns in the hands of many returning refugees, tribal conflicts are deadly. Churches in Sudan have begun to be salt and light. They are openly acknowledged by political leaders and others as a significant influence for peace and conflict resolution in a very fragmented and volatile country.
Lack of food and medical care in South Sudan has given rise to one of the highest mortality rates in the world. The desperate economic situation has created a class of professional clergymen knowledgeable in fund-raising, who live comfortably away from their own people in surrounding countries. There has also been a wave of immigration of educated Sudanese believers to prosperous and stable countries like the USA, Canada, Australia and other countries in Europe. These include theologically trained young men. Thus, the Sudanese church is deprived of precious potential leadership.
The Presbyterian Church of Sudan (PCOS) has a membership of over two million. In cooperation with the PCOS, MERF is providing diaconal aid to the neediest families in nine different regions of South Sudan, including both the eastern and western upper Nile. This includes the provision of seed for returning refugee families to begin planting crops. Plans are underway for animal husbandry micro-projects which would allow needy families to care for animals in return for some of the milk and offspring.
Meeting Spiritual Needs
Sufferings during the civil war opened many hearts to Christ. Whole communities of animist tribes came to faith, but few have had opportunity to receive much teaching from the Bible. Physical needs are great in south Sudan, but the most serious threat is a lack of spiritual leaders trained in the Scriptures. Without active teaching in God's Word, south Sudan remains largely untouched by the deep peace, security, industry, love, and joy of a biblical worldview.
MERF seeks to bring solid Bible teaching to the South Sudanese by three ministries—daily gospel radio broadcasts in the two main tribal languages (Nuer and Dinka), an intensive five-month biblical training program for church leaders, and support of pastors and evangelists through their churches. In these ministries, MERF supports about 475 pastors and 105 evangelists and carries out broadcasting, prison ministries, literature distribution, and biblical training. The literature distribution includes catechisms in Nuer and song books in Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk, Anuak, and Morle. Pray for the Lord's continued blessing on these ministries. Praise God that in many villages, people gather every day around those with operational radios to hear Bible teaching in a familiar tongue.
Since opening in November 2003, MERF's "Loki" Center in northern Kenya on the borders of South Sudan has trained over 700 to be evangelists, pastors, and many elders and lay leaders from various tribes. Brought by charter plane from remote areas of South Sudan, they receive five months of basic biblical and theological teaching. All return home equipped to share God's Word with their communities. Guest instructors are experienced pastors, elders, and Bible teachers who sacrificially serve these groups of about forty students.
South Sudanese Christians Today
African Sudanese Christians are among the poorest people in the world. Yet they are persistent and steadfast believers who know what it is to remain loyal to Christ under very harsh conditions of life. They tend to be very zealous for the conversion of the rest of their animist tribesmen. The believing communities in the Sudan are among the largest and fastest growing in all of Africa.
Several significant problems face the Reformed communities in the Sudan. The most serious is the lack of trained evangelists, pastors, elders and deacons. The majority of church officers and other active workers lacks the most elementary biblical training needed for discipling and building up their own people. Those engaged in the training of elders and lay evangelists are under no illusion as to the immensity of the biblical task which they must face. It will take serious and active efforts of biblical and theological education over the next 30 years or more to catch up with the needs of the Sudanese churches for trained workers.
The PCOS now has 9 presbyteries. The church lacks financial resources—the Government of South Sudan does not fund church development work. Most church members are too poor to give significant financial support, hence the continued dependence on MERF support.
Another matter for fervent prayer is the racial divide among Sudanese Reformed people. Tribal tensions and conflicts have spilled over into the church. Tensions over the distribution of relief materials among factions within the same tribes remind us of similar tensions in the early church as recorded in Acts 6.
Still there is much cause for joy. Arab and African Sudanese believers have learned to care for and fellowship with one another in the Reformed churches in northern Sudan. The average Sudanese believer is very teachable and receptive to instruction from God's word. The Gospel has also had an encouraging impact among the Nubian Muslims. Even among Muslim northerners, there are indications of growing interest in studying the Arabic Bible. There are confirmed reports of conversions among Sudanese army personnel and other northern Muslims.
As we contemplate the affairs of our Sudanese brethren, let us remember that the spiritual battle for the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the Sudanese people is far from over. Our concern and prayer support for them ought not to be governed by a sentimental or "this-world" agenda of the media. Let us also guard against viewing the battle as political or military, or becoming overly burdened with stories of sufferings and persecution. Let us remember that the Almighty Lord, in his infinite wisdom allows the church a measure of suffering for her own good and His own glory. Let us pray for the conversion of many more northern Sudanese Muslims through the enduring faith of the suffering Sudanese church. It is a privilege to be part of bringing the gospel to Sudan and building up God's people there through the ministries of the Middle East Reformed Fellowship: broadcasting in the gospel in Arabic over the radio, providing for the training and support of Sudanese pastors and evangelists through their churches and diaconal aid to help alleviate the great physical needs as part of the overall church witness.
- Reformed Witness in the Sudan