This article is second in a series of articles about the religious life and customs of African Catholics in the United States, and how the Church might better serve their pastoral needs. The article was written by Rev. Aniedi Okure, O.P. (Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees, United States Catholic Conference, Washington, D.C.) in collaboration with Charles Kon (PCMR representative for the Sudanese Community in the Washington, D.C. area).
Information about Sudan
Sudan is the largest country in Africa covering approximately one million square miles. Located in the northeast of the continent, Sudan is surrounded by eight African countries: Egypt, Libya, Chad, Central Africa Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Its northern and northeastern regions are mainly arid desert and scrub hills; the central part is savannah; while the south consists largely of swamp and rain forest.
Sudan was a British colony from 1898-1955. During this period, Sudan was divided into nine administrative provinces with Khartoum as the capital city. After independence, these provinces were upgraded to state administration.
Current population estimate is twenty-eight million of which more than seventy percent are Sunni Muslims. About eleven percent are Christians and live mainly in the south. Northern Sudanese are Hamito-Semites who identify themselves as Arabs. They are descendants of successive waves of Arab migrations. Through intermarriage with the dark-skinned Nubans who were the original inhabitants, Muslim Arabs succeeded in converting Nuba Christian kingdoms to Islamic rule, bringing an end to Christianity which began in the Nuba land during the first century. Most modern Nubans are Muslims, identify themselves as Arabs, and speak Arabic. Nubans who resisted giving up their identity and conversion to Islam withdrew to the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan, but they were defeated by the Muslims and many were converted to Islam. Attempts were made to revive Christianity in the nineteenth century among the inhabitants of the Nuba Mountains. The Mahdi Islamic revolution brought the Nubans under Islamic rule again, but Christian activities continued secretly in the north until the British occupation in 1898.
Hamito-Semites are also found in the eastern part of the country known as Beja. In Western Sudan there are Hamer, Bagara, Rezagate and Fur. These ethnic groups and their sub-ethnic groups are Muslims and identify themselves as Arabs. Most ethnic groups in north, west, and east Sudan have almost completely lost their traditional identity and language, adopting Arabic culture and language, except the Nubans in the north and in the Nuba Mountains who still maintain their cultural values and languages.
The inhabitants of southern Sudan are mostly dark-skinned people. They have distinctive African features, outlook and culture and have close links across the borders of adjoining countries. Sudan has over one hundred languages of which fifty are in the south. The main ethnic groups of the south are the Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk, Zande, Bari, Taposa, Jur, Anyuak. Muslims in the south maintain their African identity and identify themselves with the southern ethnic groups.
In the late nineteenth century, Bishop Daniel Comboni finally reestablished Christianity in Sudan. His gospel witnesses have remained strong in Sudan even to this day. During colonial rule, Christianity reached most parts of southern Sudan. The current civil war in Sudan which began in 1955 has greatly affected Christians, yet Christianity in the south and the Nuba Mountains remains strong, reaching into some areas Christianity never reached since it was first preached.
Several factors especially religious, cultural and economic contribute to the perennial civil war: a general feeling of superiority among northern Sudanese because they are Muslims with political power and linked to the Arab world, and an attempt to force Islam and Arabic culture and identity on non-Muslims and non-Arabs in the south. Because the south is more economically viable than the north, northerners feel that it is their right to confiscate the land from the original owners as the land is under Islamic rule and God told the Muslims to do so. Southern Sudanese, meanwhile, continue to struggle for their right to religious freedom, their land, their identity, equality, justice and mutual respect for all Sudanese.
There are about 15,000 Sudanese immigrants in the United States who fall into two categories: northern Sudanese who are mostly Muslims, and southern Sudanese who are Christians. Northern Sudanese in the United States prefer to identify with Arabs while southern Sudanese are working to maintain their cultural values and some community structure to enable them to cope with their new world. More than half the estimated 7,000 southern Sudanese immigrants in United States are Christians of which about half are Catholics. In general, southern Sudanese immigrants come to the United States because of the continuing civil war in Sudan between the north and the south. Besides the collective sense of family values common to Africans, these Sudanese immigrants bring with them a strong Christian faith, having endured many years of religious persecution in their home country. They want to build a strong Christian community away from home and look to the Church in the United States for assistance.