Recent attacks on two Catholic priests and other Christian leaders have also put a focus on the role of the church in South Sudan. The country’s freedom was achieved after two lengthy civil wars against its now northern neighbor, Sudan, in which religious identity played a key role. During the second of these wars, from 1983 to 2005, the Sudanese government attempted to fashion the country as a Muslim state, stoking a response from the predominantly Christian south. The resulting fighting saw around 2 million people killed.
As I explore in my recently published book, Christian clergy and laypeople played prominent roles in the liberation wars. As a scholar of Christianity in South Sudan, I believe understanding the church’s historical role in southern Sudanese politics can provide important context for the current situation.
A warning to the church?
South Sudan, a nation of roughly 11 million people, is seen as one of the most diverse nations in the region, consisting of more than 60 different ethnic groups. Around 60% of its population identifies as Christian.
But despite this majority status, there have been recent attacks on prominent members of the church.
In April 2021, the Rev. Christian Carlassare – an Italian Roman Catholic priest recently sent to lead the Diocese of Rumbek – was seriously injured by gunmen who stormed his residence. It followed an attack the previous June in which Anglican priest Daniel Garang Ayuen was killed in an attack during which the cathedral of the Athooch Diocese was set on fire. And in 2018, Kenyan-born Catholic priest Victor Odhiambo was killed. The year before that, Pentecostal Bishop Joel Mwendwa was killed in the capital Juba for apparently being too loud during morning prayers.
Reporting on the latest attack, Religion News Service noted: “Some have suggested that the attack against Carlassare may have been a warning for the Catholic Church to keep out of the political disputes in South Sudan and deter a papal visit.”
In recent years, political disputes have largely fallen along ethnic lines. South Sudan is only recently emerging from a devastating, multiyear civil war. It was sparked by a dispute between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar in 2013 but devolved into a full-scale conflict between their respective ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer.
If Sudan’s Independence Day celebrations are meant to encourage national unity, acts of intimidation against the church may, I believe, end up undermining the traditional role it has played as a unifying force in the country. It has been reported that since liberation in 2011, the church has been sidelined as a political force. This would represent a break from the role clergy played in South Sudan’s freedom struggle against Sudan.
Clergy and national liberation
Sudan was under Egyptian rule for much of the 19th century. In 1899 it came under British control and was administered by an Anglo-Egyptian colonial administration. While the British allowed extensive Christian mission work in southern Sudan, it placed serious restrictions on such work in northern Sudan, where Islam had served as a strong cultural element for centuries. Sudanese speak Arabic, and those who are Muslim are generally Sunni.
After Sudan gained independence from its colonial masters in 1956, the nation’s government tried to fashion the country along Islamic lines.
This took the form of nationalizing missionary schools – replacing missionaries as elementary school heads in the process – eliminating Sunday as a weekly holiday and replacing it with Friday, the weekly Muslim holy day, and expelling hundreds of foreign Christian missionaries in 1964.
While much of northern Sudan – the seat of national power – was already Islamic, many in southern Sudan did not identify as Muslim. In addition to the already existing non-Arabic ethnic groups is the south, Christian missionary organizations had been working in southern Sudan during the colonial period.
While the number of conversions to Christianity during the colonial era was small, former Southern mission school students were among those to become political organizers when civil war erupted in 1955.
In the First Sudanese Civil War from 1955 to 1972, church figures played a prominent role. Catholic priest Paolino Doggale famously protested against the government’s elimination of Sunday as a weekly holiday, using the issue as a rallying point against the Sudanese government.
Meanwhile, Catholic priest Saturnino Lohure joined the armed Anyanya guerrilla army, which fought against the north. Killed in the bush, Lohure has been positioned by incumbent South Sudanese President Salva Kiir as ranking among other heroic figures in the country’s freedom struggle.
The civil war ended in 1972. But a shaky peace devolved into another conflict in 1983. During the Second Civil War, the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement newspaper, the SPLM/SPLA Update, published articles from Catholic priest Thomas Attiyah. Attiyah drew on biblical passages to encourage resistance and blast Sudan’s political system as “evil.” During the war, church leaders formed the New Sudan Council of Churches. Joined by all Southern Churches in 1989, by 1991 the NSCC provided support for the SPLA across an area larger than Kenya.
They were supported by international Christian organizations, such as Christian Solidarity International and Samaritan’s Purse, which worked to draw international awareness to southern Sudanese suffering during the war. Such organizations lobbied for U.S. sanctions against Sudan and supported the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which allowed the U.S. to put countries on a “watch list” for “violations of religious freedoms.”
The long civil war ended with 2005’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which mandated an independence referendum be held in 2011. Voters who participated in the referendum overwhelmingly opted for secession.
The future of church-state relations
Given the past influence Christian leaders have had in South Sudan, I would argue that it is hard to imagine the church easily backing away from its wider role in society – even with the recent incidents of anti-clerical violence.
The church has operated in circumstances of conflict from the mid-1950s onward. Priests, pastors and nuns protected civilians from extremists on both sides and occasionally stood up to armed men while mostly being unarmed themselves.
But the recent attacks of members of the clergy serves as a reminder of the violence that has scarred South Sudan over its 10 years of existence.
Christopher Tounsel received funding from the University of Michigan, the Council of Overseas American Research Centers, and the Pennsylvania State University in the completion of this piece.