Sudanese Episcopal bishop to speak at local churches

Cleric decries persecution of Christians in his land

April 18, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

During Holy Week observances in Westminster, a Sudanese bishop will preach on the passion of Jesus Christ and the plight of Christians in war-ravaged Sudan.

The Rev. Nathaniel Garang, bishop of the Bor diocese of the Episcopal Church in Sudan, said he hopes to raise U.S. awareness that his homeland has endured nearly four decades of civil strife and that the Islamic government has persecuted Christians.

"I will preach Christ, how he came and suffered for us," said Garang, who has been in the United States since January.

"And, I will preach how the Sudanese are suffering for God. They are strong Christians."

Sudan, the largest country in Africa and home to 30 million people, is about 60 percent Christian. But Muslims, who reside in northern Sudan, hold the government power.

The southern half of the country, with about 15 million Christians, is rich in oil and minerals and fertile farmland.

"The government wants to Islamize the whole country and then the world," said Garang, a 63-year-old prelate whose flock in Sudan numbers about 250,000. "They want the land and the oil in the south, but not the people."

In the past 20 years, 2.5 million people have been killed in the conflict and another 8 million, most of them children, have been displaced, Garang said.

Last fall, both sides signed a peace pact, but the government continues to terrorize Christians, Garang said.

"The United Nations and other agencies try to establish clinics, but the government targets them with bombs," he said.

Food and medicine sent to Sudan from overseas rarely reach the people who need it, he said.

Garang will march in Westminster's annual Good Friday procession along Main Street today, as long as his knees hold out, he said. The procession ends at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, where he will speak at the noon service.

"A wonderful opportunity has presented itself for this community service," said the Rev. Ronald S. Fisher, Ascension's rector.

"We have been praying for the persecuted Christians in Sudan for a long time. The bishop's visit makes it real. It will be a joy to hear his message and hear how he ties his situation to the theme of Good Friday. He shows how Christians are usually the strongest under persecution."

The bishop will preach again at the Westminster Church of Christ tomorrow.

That congregation will also view A Story Not Heard, a film made by a member of that church at the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. Some 150,000 people, many of them Sudanese, live in the camp, where the infant mortality rate is 45 percent, Garang said.

Erica Surber, who filmed interviews in the camp three years ago, said she wants to show the Sudan war's effects.

The interviews detail the stories of camp residents, such as a 30-year-old recruited into the government's army and then tortured for refusing to convert to Islam and a boy who trekked hundreds of miles on foot and swam across alligator-infested rivers after the army killed his parents.

"Nothing prepares you for the stuff you hear about in that refugee camp," said Surber.

"You would think that when horrible things happen to so many people that someone would help. Over and over at the camp, they would say, `We are dying. What is wrong with us that no one cares?'"

While he is in the United States, Garang also is trying to reconnect with the thousands of young men -- known as "the lost boys" -- who escaped persecution and starvation in Sudan as children.

He estimates several thousand "lost boys," mostly in their 20s, are now living in the United States.

When the Sudanese government destroyed Garang's church in 1983, he fled into the countryside to continue his ministry. He worked in the refugee camps, and baptized and confirmed many of those young men.

"The bishop left the town, but not his country," said the Rev. Peter Yueng, an Episcopal priest who is accompanying Garang.

"For six years, he was in the interior of the country. People called him the lost bishop. As the boys passed by him, he prayed with them. He used a dugout canoe to cross rivers to get to them."

Yueng, once one of the lost boys, joined a guerrilla movement at age 16. He later studied for the ministry and Garang ordained him in 1990.

Both ministers traveled to Washington yesterday to meet with the Sudan Coalition, a group of officials and religious leaders who helped get the Sudan Peace Act passed in Congress last year. Garang will contribute his recollections of the war to an official record.

"We need to hear more voices like the bishop's, who speak the truth about what is going on in places like Sudan," said Faith McDonnell, director of the religious liberty program at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

"This is not just a religious war, it is also racist. The Arab government is trying to eradicate the African population of the country."

Garang and Yueng have made visits and appeals to many churches. Most often the response has been "how can we help?" Yueng said.

"There is much for Christians to do," said Garang. "They can pray that we have peace, ask their government to help bring peace to Sudan and they can help us financially. We have no food, no medicines, no schools. We are going back to nothing. Everything is destroyed."

Yueng added, "The people are poor materially, but you find thousands at church. God brought peace to South Africa. He can bring it to Sudan."

Garang and Yueng will return to their homeland in June.

"If I don't go to them, where will they get the word of God?" Garang said.

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