American Evangelicals in South Sudan

American Evangelicals in South Sudan

Religious identity has played a large role in the emergence of South Sudan, Africa’s newest nation. Theres a large number of Christians in South Sudan. That sets it apart from North Sudan where Muslims are the majority. American Christians were instrumental in pressuring the Bush administration to support the 2005 peace treaty that ended the long civil war between north and south. That influence is still felt in South Sudan as Matthew Brunwasser reports from Juba.

(Photo: Matthew Brunwasser)

At Sunday morning services at the Pentecostal Juba Christian Center in South Sudan, similar to American-style Christianity, the preacher says “the holy spirit is moving in this nation, a lot of prayers are being poured…”

It’s not unheard of for politics and pulpit to mix. But in relations between states, faith usually takes a backseat to realpolitik. In the case of the 2005 peace treaty between northern and southern Sudan, though, it was the opposite. Douglas Johnston, with the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Washingon, says American Christians essentially drove the politics.

“Because a lot of them were doing missionary work down there and they had seen a lot of the very bad stuff going on,” Johnston said. “They would report back and then the churches got involved. Had it not been for that element, I don’t think we would’ve ever gotten involved in Sudan. Nor do I think anyone would have ever cared about Darfur.”

President Bush appointed retired senator and ordained Episcopal priest John Danforth as his Sudan envoy. There was war between north and south, and the Sudanese Council of Churches was lobbying for peace in the US and Europe.

“They were to collect the data of every bomb dropped in the south by the Sudan government air force, by location, by time, by whatever injured the people, all this information proved useful, when John Danforth came, he got that information, and he used it to press the parties, both sides, the Sudan government in particular, to agree to stop killing civilians,” said Enoch Tombe, the Episcopal Bishop of Rejaf, was at the time head of the council whose monitors documented human rights abuses.

The story of the suffering Sudanese Christians resonated loudly with American Christians. Aaron Shapiro works in the juba office of Samaritan’s purse, run by Franklin Graham – Billy’s son — one of the biggest faith based organizations in Sudan.

“I think it was probably a very easy story to sell, for better or for worse,” said Shapiro. “Arab Muslims versus black Christians. It definitely goes over as a good headline and a good story, within the Christian community. It’s much more complex than that.”

Political bedfellows

There was a strange coalition of political bedfellows pushing for action in Sudan: conservative Christians, the congressional black caucus and human rights groups. The signing of the peace treaty six years ago ended the war and paved the way for last January’s secession vote in South Sudan. It also mandated freedom of worship. Christianity is alive and well.

After services at the Pentacostal Juba Christian Center parishioner Christine Poney said she expects Christianity to grow in South Sudan. She throws around the names of American televangelists like they’re movie stars.

“I watch them on TV so many times,” said Poney. “I’m a fan of TD Jakes, sorry to call it a fan, but I really like his preaching, they are real, practical. Benny Hinn is another Pentcostal gentleman … I even subscribe to his incoming mails and so forth. despite the recent issues about his family life, Benny Hinn is the man.”

There’s some concern here that a particular form of American Christianity is spreading too quickly. Marina Peter, the European coordinator of the Sudan Ecumenical Forum, said South Sudan is ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous preachers. She expects independence to set off a gold rush for souls.

“For those churches who want to have an influence, who want to grow, its just wonderful,” Peter said. “They have many people who are not educated, who will just follow whatever they are told. My fear is that these poor people will be misused.”

Some amount of exploitation may be the price South Sudan pays for progress. But however South Sudan’s new religious freedom develops the new country will have Christian believers to thank for its new freedoms.

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