For one thousand years Christianity predominated in Northern Sudan. From the sixth century to the fifteenth century Christianity was the official religion of the three Sudanese king-doms of Nubia, Makuria (later Dotawo) and Alwa. For nine hundred years the Christians of Sudan successfully resisted the southward expansion of Islam.
Yet by the late fifteenth century the weakened Christian kingdoms reeled from waves of Arab attacks. Towns were burned and confusion spread. Nubia fell. The fall of the Christian kingdom of Dotawo in 1484 and the fall of the southernmost kingdom of Alwa in 1530 heralded the demise of the Christian Faith in Northern Sudan. Today Sudan is officially an Islamic state. The National Islamic Front (NIF) regime has declared Jihad (holy war) against the Christian South and against the Arabic-speaking Nuba Christians in central Sudan.
Article 1 of Sudan's Constitutional Decree (October 16, 1993) states: "Islam is the guiding religion . . . it is a binding code that directs the laws, regulations and policies of the State . . ." The government of Sudan's leaders regularly proclaim their goal of transforming Sudan into an Islamic state with one language, Arabic, and one religion, Islam. Nearly two million Christians have died so far (most from a man-made famine) in the scorched-earth and bombing campaign launched by the Muslim North.
While most of the Black South of Sudan claim to be Christians and steadfastly resist the Islamization and Arabization policies of the North, the question still remains: Why did Christianity die out in the North of Sudan?
The first Sudanese to be converted to Christ was the treasurer of Queen Candace of the kingdom of Meroe in A.D. 37 (Ac. 8:26-40). From this time on Christianity came to be increasingly embraced by the intellectuals and royal households. In Nubia and Alwa the kings seem to have accepted the Gospel first. The churches in the Nubian kingdom were always closely associated with the king. In fact, the king himself was often also a priest and it was a common practise for bishops and priests to hold leadership positions in the government. There is little historical evidence that the common people were effectively evangelized. As a result, when the kingdoms began to break up politically, the church collapsed. The church in Northern Sudan was heavily centralized with ecclesiastial heirarchy and a separation between the clergy and the laity.
Even more seriously, the churches in Northern Sudan relied heavily upon the services of foreign bishops and priests. Most of the leaders of the church were Egyptian or Greek or Coptic. These languages were understood by the king and the educated people in his court, but not by the common people. Hence, Christianity in Northern Sudan was a religion of the educated elite and not of the common man. The churches were also strong in the towns and cities but had much less impact among the rural farming communities.
The over-dependence of Northern Sudan on foreign bishops and priests later starved the church of leadership as the Muslim armies cut off all contact between Egypt and Nubia in the thirteenth century. As the bishops had been appointed by the Greek and Coptic patriarchs in Egypt, the Islamic stranglehold made it very difficult for the church in Nubia to continue to grow.
Simultaneously the continuous migration of Arab traders and nomads into Sudan eroded the Christian dominance and spread the influence of Islam. The last years of the Christian kingdoms were years of confusion.
Intermarriage with Muslims brought dissention. The treacherous compromise of the Nubian kings to sell slaves to the Muslims as part of a peace treaty undermined the Christian civilization which had thrived for nearly a millenium.
There was much quarrelling and conflict within the royal families. The Mamluk rulers in Egypt eagerly interfered and exploited the divisions in Nubia. The churches were so closely connected with the kings and to the patriarchs of Alexandria (in Egypt) that they rose and fell with them.
Sadly, during the final chapter of the demise of Christianity in Northern Sudan, six men from Alwa were sent as Ambassadors to the king of neighbouring Ethiopia. They begged him to send them priests and monks to teach them. Yet this desperate cry for help was ignored. The Christians in Ethiopia refused to help their neighbours to the west.
It is important to understand that Christianity did not die out in Northern Sudan because of external persecution by Muslims. The churches were empty and abandoned long before Islam filled the vacuum and became well established. The fact that few Nubians were literate and that services were in Greek and Coptic meant that the Word of God was not well known among the common people. The over-dependance upon foreign bishops and priests made the churches vulnerable when communication links to the outside world were cut.
The churches were too closely allied to the political power structures and fell with the kings. By compromising with Islam and allowing a quota of their own people to be enslaved in order to buy assurances of peace, a Nubian kingdom condemned itself to be judged by God.
The lessons to us today are clear: It is essential that we give priority to literacy training, Bible teaching and leadership training. We need to build for healthy, self-supporitng, self- governing and self-propogating churches. We need to teach and practice decentralization and the priesthood of all believers. And we need to be very careful not to be co-opted by secular politicians, only to be used to advance their humanist agendas. Nor may we ever compromise our Faith in order to buy some temporary illusion of peace.
May God be merciful to us and keep us from repeating the errors of the past. Let us be faithful to His Word and to His work. And may we not fail those who are being persecuted for their Faith and who are looking to us for help.
"Cush will submit herself to God" (Ps. 68:31).
Peter Hammond is the Founder and Director of Frontline Fellowship and the Director of United Christian Action (a network of 20 Bible-based groups working for revival and reformation in Southern Africa). He is an international speaker, presenting about 400 lectures or sermons each year throughout Africa, Eastern Europe and America. Peter is married to Lenora and they have been blessed with three children — Andrea, Daniela and Christopher. Donations for Peter Hammond should be made through:
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