More than 10 Christian churches and a church-run vocational training center in and around the sprawling Wad el Bashier displaced persons camp in West Omdurman, Sudan, have been demolished by authorities in an ongoing urban re-planning exercise affecting thousands of people.

According to sources in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, makeshift worship centers erected by Christians fleeing two decades of civil war or natural disaster have been demolished, many of them within the last two months. Some of the centers are affiliated with the Anglican, African Inland, and Roman Catholic churches, as well as the Sudan Church of Christ, they said.

"These structures have value for the displaced Christians who put them up as places of worship," one source said. "Those who knock them down are tampering with the faith of those believers, because the first thing they want to do is put up a house of the Lord."

As part of urban planning policies dating back to the early 1990s, poor residential areas in and around the camp, including some squatter camps, are being demolished and residents are slowly being allotted plots of land. But in many cases, they are rendered homeless for several months.

Sources noted that authorities step up their demolition of churches, schools, health centers, and training facilities erected by non-governmental organizations in the windy and cool winter months and most notably just prior to the Christmas season. Some mosques have also been destroyed, as have most latrines, shops, and bakeries. A recent U.N. report on conditions in the camp said brick and concrete structures, such as the main Catholic Church in the area, are not expected to be demolished.

An estimated 15,300 households have been affected by demolition in the areas around the camp, a temporary home to some 50,000 Sudanese. The people are given a "deserted piece of land" without water supply, where they put up their own shelter and struggle to find medical care, sources said.

The U.N. report states that almost 7,500 shelters, houses, and latrines will be affected and that the current plan is to demolish the entire area before allocating new plots, rather than carry out the demolition in incremental steps as was the case in the past.

Due to conflict and natural disasters, Sudan now hosts Africa's largest displaced population, currently estimated at over four million people. Most of the people have settled throughout urban areas in Khartoum, Omdurman, and Bahri, and in four government-designated camps around Khartoum and Omdurman.

Most of the displaced are from southern Sudan or the Nuba mountains and include such ethnic groups as Baggara, Bari, Dinka, Fur, Nuer, Shilluk, Zagawa, and Zandi. The U.N. report notes that the average household contains around seven members and over 90 percent live below the poverty line.

The evangelist and the president
In a separate event, American evangelist Franklin Graham, president of the international relief organization, Samaritan's Purse, met Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir on December 8 when the president invited Graham to the capital.

"The problems of religious freedom have been tied to the war," El-Bashir said. "As soon as the war is over, the pressure against Christians will be over. We have to be sure that the freedom of religion of Christians is not less than the freedom of Islam.

"We will take the responsibility to rebuild the churches in this country," he added. "We welcome you who have come through the back door for years [meaning southern Sudan], to come through the front door now."

Graham, an outspoken critic of the Sudanese government's record of religious liberty, was on his third trip to Sudan this year but his first to Khartoum.

"I hope as peace comes to your nation, that equality will come and that Christians will be able to worship as Muslims can," Graham told his host: "Muslims and Christians can live together peaceably, and I believe that pleases God."

During his trip to Sudan, Graham delivered 60,000 Christmas gift boxes to children in the contested areas of southern Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains, and southern Sudan.

Related Elsewhere

Many more articles about Sudan, including a recent interview with the bishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan's Diocese of Renk, are available our Sudan page.