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south-sudan-map-2011The headline reads, “Christians Threatened by Islamist Attacks and Famine.” The dateline is Sudan. What is going on here?

Anyone who begins research on the issues that plague Sudan and South Sudan immediately discovers a plague of confusion. News articles are not necessarily clear about geographic references unless the names of towns are included. Spoken references to “southern Sudan” and to “South Sudan” sustain the confusion until the researcher gets the map clearly in mind. However, Christians in the USA need to focus on the issues that shape the map, and when they do, they will learn some truths important for everyone.

The country of Sudan has a long history in Africa. It was administered by Great Britain during the colonial era and achieved independence in 1956. The population then, as now, was largely Arab in the north and tribal in the south. In the north, Islam was and is the dominant religion, while in the south, Christianity thrives alongside numerous animist religions linked to tribal identity. To complicate matters, rich petroleum resources in the south began to be developed in the late 90’s, and the pipelines that transport the crude oil to the marketplace run through the northern section. The nation suffered disconnects along ethnic, religious and economic fracture lines from the beginning. It seems no more than natural that the southern region of Sudan agitated for independence for years before it officially seceded in 2011. Today Sudan and South Sudan are still embroiled in the conflicts that led to separation.

The problems in Sudan and South Sudan are brought to our attention by the cries and prayers of Christians suffering persecution there. These problems should give all Christians pause.

First, we are all part of the body of Christ, and when one part suffers, we all suffer. In the spirit of shared suffering, we pray for Christians in Sudan and South Sudan. Continuing border disputes with Sudan have left some Christian communities inside the borders of Sudan in the southern part of the country. The Sudanese government, a government which has claimed to want “100% Islam” in the country, has expressed itself by allowing, if not actually instigating, aerial bombings of Christian communities by Sudanese Security Forces. Christians in southern Sudan are just as much the victims of aggression on behalf of Islam as those who died in New York on September 11, 2001.

Second, the concept of “100% Islam” is hard for free people to comprehend. Americans are accustomed to decide what they want to believe in the realm of religion and to act on it with complete freedom. They cannot imagine what it would be like to live under a government committed to the principle that everyone in the country should be Muslim. Furthermore, Americans would say that a member of the United Nations ought not to persecute any religion, because that behavior is proscribed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government of Sudan, however, courting the support of the majority of its population, is not only advocating that the nation be “100% Islam,” but it allows national security forces to attack, arrest, and even torture non-Muslims. The predominantly Christian population of the southern area inside Sudan is under constant assault, and even after the formation of separate countries there have been instances of cross-border aggression against Christians in South Sudan.

The facts suggest, however, that the pro-Islamic fervor and the anti-Christian aggression are likely as much about economics as religion. The Islamic population of Sudan has few sources for water and few resources for economic growth.  The majority of sources for both water and petroleum are in areas where the majority population is Christian. Government leadership appears disinclined to negotiate the sharing of resources, opting instead to tacitly approve aggression against the “infidels” in the region where resources are plentiful.

What can Christians learn from the battlefields of Sudan and South Sudan?

First, they can learn to pray for all parties to the religious persecution. Christ taught us to love our enemies and pray for them. Christians who take their faith seriously do not simply want the bombing of Christian villages to stop, desirable as that may be. We always and supremely want every person to know Christ and to know his forgiveness and grace in their own lives. It isn’t easy to pray for someone you first need to forgive, but the Christians who suffer persecution and those who suffer and pray with them must keep Christ first in their hearts and first in their prayers.

Second, they can pray for all parties to the economic despair that adds fuel to the fires of aggression. All the people in Sudan and South Sudan suffer because their economy is a wreck. In the late nineties when oil production began, before the country was divided, they all started to see some hope for improvement to a way of life that is hardly subsistence level. However, the cultural and religious differences that split Sudan and South Sudan have disrupted development of petroleum, the one resource they all had for any hope of prosperity, and the continuing battles against Christians gain focus because most of the Christians live in the area where most of the oil is located. When Sudan threatened exorbitant fees for use of the pipelines required to transport South Sudan’s oil to market, South Sudan simply shut down production. The outcome? Ever deepening poverty for all. Christians must pray for God’s provision and for God’s guidance in the use of his provision. The resources exist for a comfortably prosperous nation, but self-serving leaders and narrow vision strangle the process that could provide for all.

Third, they can pray for two governments, multiple religions and countless tribal groupings who truly do not comprehend that it is possible for them all to prosper and live in peace together. Why? Because very few of the people involved have ever seen people of various ethnic, religious and economic origins live in peace together. It is too late in time to judge Great Britain for failing to nurture self-respect, tolerance and productive behaviors during the colonial era. The empire had its own problems, and of course, nobody is perfect, but the outcome is that when Sudan gained its independence, the newly-independent people still had a lot to learn, and to un-learn. They are still learning. A careful reading of news and editorials posted on websites in the two countries makes it clear that voices of reason and integrity are bubbling to the top, occasionally making themselves heard above the voices of partisan economic, religious and tribal agitation. Christians need to pray for God’s Spirit to work in these two countries to transform their leaders into responsible, accountable servants of the people instead of venal thieves lining their own pockets with the revenues people can ill afford to sacrifice for the elusive blessing of good government.

When Christians hear that other Christians are being persecuted, it is easy to feel empathy pains, but Christians should not jump to the conclusion that persecution is the whole story. We are called to be little Christs in all situations. We may not personally be able to take any action to change things in Sudan and South Sudan, but we can invoke the mightiest power in the universe to act there, simply because we know that Christ loves the people of Sudan and South Sudan – the Muslims, the Christians, the animist worshipers in tribal religions, and those whose despair has led them to doubt there even is a God. We can pray. We must pray, with the faith that moves mountains.

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Some material is this post is drawn from weekly prayer updates provided by The Voice of the Martyrs.

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