Sudan has suffered through two catastrophic civil wars since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1956. The first Sudanese Civil War lasted from 1955–1972 and the second from 1983–2005. Ethnic and religious clashes continued between the two wars, resulting in nearly 50 years of conflict. Millions of Sudanese have died as a result of the violence and millions more have been displaced, both internally and across borders.
The civil wars in Sudan were two of 44 religious civil wars fought around the world between 1940 and 2010 (though religion had a more decisive role in the second).1 Ethnicity and religion play an important part in the politics and daily lives of people in Sudan; the primarily Arabic-speaking Muslim north and African, English-speaking animist/Christian south have been at odds for decades. In fact, one of the predominant reasons for the second civil war was the north’s desire to force their culture, religion, and language onto the south, which was overwhelmingly resistant to such efforts;2 this also included a push for sharia law. The end of this war was mediated under U.S. President George W. Bush by former U.S. Senator John Danforth (Special Envoy for Peace in Sudan, 2001), an ordained Episcopal priest and therefore respected as a “man of God” by Christian and Muslim leaders alike.3 Danforth acutely understood the tensions surrounding the religious reality of the situation and thus was able to work for peace by bringing Muslim and Christian leaders together, utilizing the Sudanese Inter-Religious Council.4
In January 2011 a referendum on independence was held in Southern Sudan, a condition established in the 2005 peace agreement that ended the Second Sudanese Civil War. Voter turnout in Southern Sudan was 99%; only about 45,000 people voted to stay united with northern Sudan and 3.8 million voted for secession (that is, 1.17% against and 98.83% in favor).5 Southern Sudan will officially become the world’s newest country on July 9, 2011 (leaving a much reduced Sudan or Northern Sudan as a second “new” country). Several key issues remain to be resolved, such as oil rights, border demarcation, and the status of Abyei.6 The map below illustrates the new religious demography of Sudan and Southern Sudan, highlighting a clear North-South divide between Muslims and Christians.
These religious differences are further shown in Tables 1 and 2 below. The first thing to notice is that Sudan (Northern) has been at least 85% Muslim for the past 100 years. Over that same period, animists (or ethno-religionists) have declined from almost 15% to less than 3%. A significant Christian minority exists in the North, mostly in Khartoum, consisting mainly of Roman Catholics and Anglicans, many as transplants from the South.
Southern Sudan, on the other hand, was largely animistic in 1900 but has gradually become majority Christian over the course of the century. The bulk of the growth has been over the past 40 years, despite the civil wars and the death of perhaps as many as 2 million people in the South. Roman Catholic work in Sudan began in 1842, though much of it was focused on Khartoum. Anglicans started in 1899, also initially based in Khartoum.
Although the official split from Sudan was relatively peaceful, there is still great possibility for tension and conflict. The return of refugees to an already-underdeveloped country will undoubtedly put strains on the nation’s scant resources. Additionally, Dennis Blair (U.S. Director of National Intelligence) warned the U.S. Congress in 2010 that out of the countries he deemed most susceptible to “new outbreak[s] of mass killing…a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan.”7 It is clear that there is a need for a movement of ongoing interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Christians in Sudan in order for the two communities to be able to live amicably together, despite their rough history. It has been difficult for the church to embrace such a measure since much of the violence has historically been initiated by the Muslim north.8 In addition, the situation in Southern Sudan is arguably one of the worst health crises in the world. It has essentially no health care system and is home to a combination of deadly, untreatable, and unique diseases.9
Despite the conflict, trials, and seemingly poor outlook of life in Sudan, the church has made great gains there in recent decades. Progress began during the nineteenth century when Christians, with slave-trade guilt, began a mission in Sudan with few converts to report. Christianity did not begin to grow significantly until the twentieth century; all missionaries were expelled 1964 during the First Sudanese Civil War, followed by genocide and displacement. Despite the strife, the church grew. The Episcopal Church of the Sudan is the fastest-growing church in the Anglican Communion; this is apparent even in refugee camps scattered throughout Southern Sudan.10 Canon Ezra Baya Lawiri, an Anglican leader, summed up the situation in Sudan quite well before his death in a crossfire in 1990: “God is not defeated” in Sudan.11
Editor’s Note: This article is a part of a pilot version of Lausanne Global Analysis. A planning team has begun working on the production of the new Lausanne Global Analysis. The Analysis will provide multilingual analysis of issues facing the church and worldwide evangelization from a global network of regional leaders, researchers, and writers. The launch as a monthly publication is tentatively scheduled for April 2012. (Learn more)
1 Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011), 154, 162.
2 Francis M. Deng, “Sudan—Civil War and Genocide: Disappearing Christians of the Middle East,” Middle East Quarterly 8, no. 1 (Winter 2001), 13, cited in Toft et al., God’s Century, 161.
3 Toft et al., God’s Century, 192.
5 “South Sudan backs independence – results,” BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation], February 7, 2011, accessed May 18, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12379431.
6 As of May 22, 2011, the Sudanese Army occupied Abyei, claiming the town for North Sudan. See Jeffrey Gettleman and Josh Kron, “Warnings of All-Out War in Fight Over Sudan Town,” The New York Times, May 22, 2011, accessed May 22, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/23/world/africa/23sudan.html?_r=2&hp. This has great potential to cause continued conflict between the two countries.
7 “Southern Sudan votes to split from the north,” CNN [Cable News Network], February 7, 2011, accessed May 4, 2011, http://articles.cnn.com/2011-02-07/world/sudan.referendum.results_1_sudanese-president-omar-al-bashir-preliminary-results-comprehensive-peace-agreement/2?_s=PM:WORLD.
8 Grant LeMarquand, “Faith in Sudan: Recent work on the history and theology of Christianity in the Sudan,” accessed May 5, 2011, http://www.tsm.edu/sites/default/files/Faculty%20Writings/LeMarquand%20-%20Faith%20in%20Sudan.pdf, 2.
9 Emma Ross, “Southern Sudan has unique combination of worst diseases in the world,” Sudan Tribune, January 28, 2004, accessed May 4, 2011, http://www.sudantribune.com/Southern-Sudan-has-unique,1616.
10 LeMarquand, “Faith in Sudan,” 1.
11 Ibid., 6.