Churches in the northern part of Sudan are concerned about what will happen at the end of the week-long referedum on south Sudanese independence, if the expected outcome occurs. Southerners are mostly Christian or follow traditional, folk religions, but the North has been under Islamic law since 1983. It’s unclear what will happen to Christians in the north if the south does indeed secede. The churches say they will remain open, but many Christians are fleeing south anyway.
For a while, Christian marriage certificates weren’t recognized, and the government confiscated the Catholic Club, repainting it with green Islamic colors and using it to house a northern political party. After the peace agreement in 2005, when former southern rebels were allowed into the national government, churches say that they were afforded more rights and that non-Muslims were “better protected” in the capital. But many Christians are alarmed by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s comments that Sharia law will be strengthened after secession.
The churches, however, remain resolute in the face of this impending danger. “Even if there is just one Christian left in the north we will be here because the shepherd cannot leave his flock,” said Catholic Quintino Okeny Joseph, Vicar-General of the Archdiocese of Khartoum.
The Coptic Christians seem less concerned about potential discrimination and oppression, perhaps because they are of Arab and not African descent. The Sudanese Copts’ feeling of safety is ironic, however, given the recent revival of sectarian violence against Christians in Egypt. A Coptic priest said that he was confident that such violence would never occur in Sudan. “The Islam in Sudan is very quiet and very kind and no one from the Muslim people would attack any church,” said proto-priest Filotheos Farag, who explained that he was paid respectful visits by prominent Muslims during Coptic Christmas last week.
Interestingly, most seemed to agree on the fact that sectarian differences were political in origin. “There are no problems between people in north Sudan, between neighbours – there is respect,” said churchgoer James Jok. “The problem is with the politicians.”
This seems to be the case, to some extent, with the situation in Egypt. Although no one has taken official credit for the New Year’s Eve attack in Alexandria, many Egyptian Muslims have stepped up to show their support for Coptic Christians, even volunteering as “human shields” during services on Christmas Eve. It will be interesting to see whether there is some kind of political crackdown on North Sudanese Christians after the election, and whether this sense of neighborliness will prevail – as we can only hope it will.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.