Christians in Sudan now have freedom to “preach everywhere, without restrictions”. This, says Sudanese Pastor Samuel Luak, is one of the remarkable side effects of the unforeseen uprising that has unseated a repressive regime in his North African homeland. SAT-7 spoke to the pastor, who is also a contributor to the SAT-7 ARABIC series Critical Issues and is currently based in the UK.
Luak, a former lawyer who has led churches in Sudan and Egypt and church-planting networks among the Sudanese diaspora in Finland and the UK, is astounded by some of the opportunities Sudan’s Christians have been given recently.
He points to the Sunday in April when democracy campaigners asked the churches to lead prayers and sing Christian songs among thousands gathered at a sit-in outside Khartoum army headquarters. Those present heard a call from the chair of the Evangelical churches to “build a new Sudan based on love and selflessness, putting others first and treating them the way we would like them to treat us”.
“This has never happened before in Sudan,” Luak says. “Most of those attending were Muslims. My friend Pastor Philemon Hassan (who has appeared on SAT-7’s Keep on Singing programme) preached there.”
In fact, Christians who had previously seen churches demolished and experienced close surveillance by Sudan’s Islamist government had held back from attending the protests. The opposition Sudan Professionals Association (SPA), who invited them, did so in recognition that Christians had suffered long enough. “You have suffered sectarian and psychological restrictions for years… [which have left you] without the right to worship freely,” they told them.
Since those protests, negotiations have led to the formation of a new civilian-military “sovereign council” and the appointment of an 18-member civilian cabinet. The new cabinet has the task of steering the country over the next three years towards general elections.
Pastor Luak is encouraged and sees the increased freedom that Christians have to share their faith as a sign of growing equality where Christians do not face government discrimination. “The political situation in Sudan has moved in a positive way that has prevented a serious crisis,” he says.” I believe things will work well.”
Luak also paints a broader picture of a revival among Sudanese Christians, both in the country and abroad. In 2013, when civil war broke out in South Sudan two years after it broke away from the north, “everybody returned to Khartoum,” he says. “Now the churches are more full than before independence.”
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There has also been rapid Christian growth among the large numbers of Sudanese working or studying in neighbouring Egypt. At university there in the early 1990s, he was one of 900 Sudanese students, only seven of whom were Christians.
When he returned to Egypt in 2000, Luak says there were 11 Sudanese churches spread across the country. Today there are 72. Persecution in Sudan and spiritual revival were behind the growth of this diaspora church.
Luak explains that the reason for starting separate Sudanese fellowships is that Egyptian churches are often based around extended families. Their more formal worship culture is also alien to the more charismatic style that Sudanese believers prefer.
“The Church of Sudan has been experiencing revival where everyone is evangelical or charismatic, even if they belong to Anglican or Catholic churches,” he says. “The way people express their faith is part of this.”
“Something to give”
Even so, Luak encourages Sudanese Christians outside Sudan to get involved with local Christians whenever possible and to be a strong witness wherever God sends them: “Sudanese feel that God forced them to leave their country, but He sent them to be witnesses where they are. That’s what is happening now. In Australia, Canada, the USA, Europe, they have many churches. Wherever they go, they feel we are missionaries, we have something to give.”
It’s a message Luak shared with fellow Sudanese while he undertook further theological training in Lebanon in the early 2000s, and then after moving to Finland in 2004.
“At that time there were 1,800 Sudanese in Finland, most of them Christians, and I was the only trained minister among them,” he remembers.
The new arrivals from Sudan found learning Finnish a difficult process; so they agreed to form fellowships wherever they were living. “We established 10 fellowships around Finland, some of them led by people who had no experience at all, but we met six times a year for conferences for training,” Luak explains.
Finland’s Evangelical Lutheran Church made a number of their churches and centres available when Luak asked if the Sudanese could meet in their buildings. The host denomination was initially at a loss to understand how Sudanese Christians from all denominations could happily meet together in one fellowship. Luak reassured them, and the Finnish leaders realised there were lessons in Christian unity they could learn from these Sudanese believers.
“We encourage Sudanese to go to local churches too,” Luak says, “We say ‘Don’t just go to make up the numbers; you have something to give, you can encourage.’”
Media door opens
It was in Finland that Luak and fellow Sudanese Christians first learned of the opportunity to spread encouragement and biblical teaching more widely through satellite television. A member of IRRTV, a Finland-based media ministry, suggested recording a series that SAT-7 might be willing to broadcast. SAT-7’s Arabic channel serves the entire Middle East and North Africa. At the time, SAT-7 had no other programmes in Sudanese dialect so agreement came quickly!
“We didn’t have any plans for a media ministry, but God had all these people in place to develop something we could never have imagined!” Luak grins. Broadcasting on SAT-7 was an exciting opportunity: “SAT-7 is the only Christian Arabic channel that is respected in all countries,” he says; “It doesn’t attack other people’s faith; it isn’t seen as a threat by anyone.”
So, over seven series – typically recorded in the team’s summer holidays – some 164 episodes of Critical Issues were transmitted on SAT-7.
“It’s a very simple programme,” Pastor Luak says. “Using our personal stories and experience, we just encourage people to live Christian lives. For example, we talk about how to endure difficulties, how we keep living as Christian believers when there’s war, the importance of having fellowship wherever you go.”
Sudan is no stranger to conflict, having had two long-running civil wars before South Sudan began its own current warfare. During the months of recent protests in the north, there have been killings and a brutal massacre, on 3 June, of those who were still demonstrating in Khartoum.
“When you have crisis, the most important thing is that you are not alone,” Luak says. “You should have fellowship with other people who have the same problem… We say, ‘You have to face it together. This affects everybody.’”
And by “fellowship”, Luak means costly Acts 2-style commitment to one another. Between 1997 and 2001, when he was Dean of students at Sudan’s only Christian institute of higher education, he met young Christians from South Sudan who were studying at university in Khartoum and had nowhere to live.
Unmarried at the time, he invited them to share the Bible school home he was living in and typically had 20 guests staying at his house.
His advice brings a challenge for many of us who live in the UK today: “No one should be homeless while other people have somewhere to live,” he insists. “You cannot stay on the streets – no way. That’s the message we are sharing. Fellowship is sharing our lives together, so no-one should be left behind.”
Luak and his family are currently living in Bedford. Here he divides his time between being a refugee support worker at the church-based Kings Arms Project, completing an MA on the Church’s role in peace and conflict resolution, and supporting new fellowships around the UK.
There are currently Sudanese believers meeting together in London, Birmingham and Bolton. New fellowships are about to start in Cardiff and Manchester. So if enthusiastic Sudanese believers start to meet in your area, don’t be too surprised!
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