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Forgotten War: Sudan’s Displaced Christians Brace for ‘World’s Worst’ Hunger Crisis

Interview with leader of new evangelical alliance describes his escape from Khartoum and the pressure to pick a side.
Forgotten War: Sudan’s Displaced Christians Brace for ‘World’s Worst’ Hunger Crisis
Image: Luis Tato / Contributor / Getty
Refugees fleeing from civil war in Sudan arrive at a transit center in South Sudan.

Overlooked by crises in Gaza and Ukraine, Sudan has now endured one year of civil war. Nearly 16,000 people have been killed, with 8.2 million fleeing from their homes—including 4 million children. Both figures are global highs for internal displacement.

The United Nations stated that the “world’s worst hunger crisis” is looming, warning that one-third of Sudan’s 49 million people suffer acute food insecurity and 222,000 children could die of starvation within weeks. Yet an international emergency response plan, endorsed by UN agencies including the Cindy McCain-led World Food Program, is only six percent funded.

Sudanese Christians feel like “no one cares.”

Five years earlier, they had great hope. In 2019 a popular revolution overthrew longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, wanted for war crimes against his people. The new civilian government repealed the law of apostasy, removed Islamist elements from the bureaucracy, and implemented other democratic reforms. But in 2021 the general of the army, in cooperation with the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF)—a government-aligned paramilitary group accused of the atrocities in Darfur—deposed the prime minister.

Continuing negotiations with civilian leaders demanded a merger of the two armed forces, but neither general could agree on terms. And while it is not clear who fired the first shot, last year on April 15 the conflict exploded in the capital of Khartoum. Much of the North African nation is now a war zone.

Yet somehow, an evangelical alliance has formed and joined two regional bodies.

Rafat Samir, secretary general of the Sudan Evangelical Alliance, witnessed the outbreak of violence firsthand. Now resident in Egypt, he oversaw the dialogue between his own Evangelical Presbyterian synod and the Sudanese Church of Christ, shuttling between safe havens in his home country and in neighboring Ethiopia.

Earlier this month, these denominational partners, which Samir says represent at least 75 percent of Sudanese evangelicals, successively affiliated with the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) regional associations for both the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa. Catholics, Anglicans, Coptic Orthodox, and various Protestant denominations account for about 4 percent of the population of Sudan, which ranks No. 8 on the Open Doors World Watch List of countries where it is hardest to be a Christian.

CT asked Samir about the impact of civil war on the church, why its WEA identity exists in two directions, and why his only remaining hope is in God:

Where were you on April 15 last year?

My home is in the Bahri neighborhood, where both the army and the RSF have bases, and antiaircraft guns were firing right outside my bedroom window, with bombing campaigns morning and night. Electricity and water services were cut. As it was Ramadan, one day I went out at sunset to find food, thinking there would be a lull in the fighting. A bullet missed me by mere centimeters.

I wanted to flee immediately, but my brother preferred to wait it out, as we have witnessed clashes before, and he anticipated it would end after a few days, as previously. Bodies lie dead in the streets, and we covered them with sand to suppress the smell. But after enduring these harsh conditions with his wife and two daughters for 15 days, he agreed to leave when a bomb hit his neighboring house.

How did you escape?

We searched three days just to find a vehicle to get us out of the city, and eventually had to pay $500 USD to travel only two kilometers (1.2 miles). We then negotiated getting a small bus with 40 other people to take us to the Egyptian border, but then the driver upped the price upon our arrival to $10,000 total. We had room only for our personal documents, leaving everything else behind.

But leaving Khartoum was entirely dependent on God’s timing.

The battle was still raging, with barrel bombs damaging the road out of town. An earlier bus was stopped by the RSF, who killed the people and stole their money. We heard that, at an army checkpoint, a later bus experienced the same thing. We were lucky—soldiers only searched our vehicles for weapons and simply wanted a bribe to let us move onward.

A friendly family in the city before Egypt gave us a place to sleep and running water. But the next day, the border was so crowded it took us three days to pass through. Some slept in the mosque, others under the scattered trees. When I finally made it to Aswan, an Egyptian friend met me and gave me a place in the German mission hospital guesthouse. He cried when he saw me.

I didn’t know why until I finally settled in and looked at myself in the mirror.

Where are others in your church?

We have over 100 members in our Bahri church. Those who took shelter there were beaten by the RSF when they attacked our building, and they had to flee. Many went to Egypt, others to Ethiopia, Chad, the Nuba Mountains region, or to South Sudan. But there, it is expensive, so several traveled onward to Uganda. A few stayed in Sudan, but renting in-country is also expensive—and for those with children there is no school.

Even a bottle of water costs up to $10.

Everyone is making as much money off this crisis as they can. So, basically, people went where they had family, could find work, or get a visa. But outside of Khartoum, most churches are still functioning. They are not at peace, but they have no possibility to leave. Evangelicals are not from the elite—most believers come from war zones in Sudan. Many don’t have travel documents, and while they can work and eat, they remain poor.

The Church of Christ members are nearly all from the Nuba Mountains, which was at war with the government. Presbyterians are majority Nuba also, with 20 percent originally from South Sudan and another 20 percent from the various tribes. I am of Egyptian descent—others are from Darfur or the Arab north.

How do you manage this diversity?

Identity is a big problem in Sudan. Our country is African, but we speak Arabic. This is why we joined both regional alliances. If you say “Arab” to someone from the Nuba Mountains or South Sudan, it means the people who killed their families, raped their daughters, and tried to Islamize them. But in the north of the country, the Arab is his friend, family, and who he wants to bring to Jesus.

When we started reaching out to Muslims, some from the south resisted, saying: We don’t want to see them in heaven, they don’t deserve salvation. I understand this sentiment. But some of our congregations operate out of their tribal identity and refuse to speak Arabic.

For a long time, many in our country wanted to call ourselves an Arab republic. We are part of the Arab League, but when we need African help, we start calling ourselves Africans. But in the end, we are Africans who speak Arabic, multiethnic in our tribal makeup.

Sudan is a crossover country—some have origins from Yemen and East Africa—and most of us are of mixed heritage. Only the Nuba Mountains and a few others are not. We were even a Christian country until the 14th century, and in the 19th century an eschatological Muslim movement killed many Christians and forced others to convert to Islam.

Presbyterian missionaries came in 1899 and started the first schools for girls, agriculture, and vocational training. The Church of Christ was established in 1920 and is the largest evangelical denomination today. But Sudan is neither a Muslim country nor a Christian country, and likewise, neither Arab nor African entirely.

We joined the Middle East and North Africa Evangelical Alliance because we speak Arabic and face similar issues with Islam and government discrimination. We joined the Association of Evangelicals in Africa because we face the same issues with ethnic identity. I checked with WEA regional leadership—it is not a problem to belong to two alliances.

How has the church been able to help?

The main thing we did was help people escape and find shelter.

Our schools in Wad Madani (100 miles southeast of Khartoum) received families and provided basic meals and trauma care. All the homes are full of those displaced from Khartoum, but then when the war reached this area, many were dislocated again eastward to other cities and Port Sudan. We also helped 15 Muslim-background believers escape abroad, as they would not have been welcomed in their original villages.

We didn’t get much help from outside; a lot is funded from our own resources. This is why we haven’t been able to do much relief work. We pray and try to give hope to the people. We urge them to remain as salt and light and to keep their children from the fighting. The easiest way to make money is to join the army or the RSF and join in the looting.

But it is clear: Now is not the time for logic or reason. Bullets are talking.

Do the churches have a political opinion about the war?

Only that we will never support war—we want peace.

Last week officials approached me to make a statement in favor of the war. I told them it is not about the army or the RSF; it is about human life. We cannot support killing and destruction.

So then they went to the same Christians they used against us during the era of Bashir, who belonged to his political party and usurped leadership in our church councils. They took nice pictures with the army general.

Did the RSF reach out to you also?

As evangelicals, both sides hate us. They burned our churches. We know how the RSF killed our people in the Nuba Mountains and Darfur, so even when they were part of the post-revolutionary government, we did not deal with them. I have met with army leaders in the past, and I met our civilian prime minister and his cabinet. But we do not engage the RSF.

We are clear that we stand for life.

Security bodies approached the Church of Christ also, which faces the same problems we do. Refusing them may put us in a difficult position later on. But we cannot lie, we cannot forget who we are in Christ.

What would you like to say to those outside Sudan?

There is suspicious silence coming from the international community. The Arab League is not helping—even in Egypt they ask us if we are still in a civil war. Our issues are not on CNN, and no one pays attention to news from Sudan.

It makes the church feel like no one cares.

No one is standing up to say: Stop the war. We don’t hear that people are praying for us. We don’t see statements from churches to represent us before their governments.

To the Sudanese abroad, I say: Settle down, it will take a while before you can return. They are not settled in their spirit, but I tell them to wait on God and avoid being negative about their nation. Eventually, many will come back and bring with them the fruit from life in other countries. Others will stay and can support from the diaspora.

But we are all aliens and strangers in this world, like Abraham, living in tents.

Do you maintain hope in God?

We never lose it—we know that God is good.

From Deuteronomy, we know he can change a curse into a blessing. From Isaiah, we know he can change mourning into laughter. And from Romans, we know he will make all things work together for good.

Like with Samson’s lion, he can turn a carcass into something sweet.

This is the only hope we have. We know the situation now is not the end. God is working, we are safe, and we manage to have enough to eat. This is all a blessing from him.

But we have nothing we can do, except wait for God to move.

[ This article is also available in العربية and Français. ]

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