Signs of tolerance amid religious strife in Sudan

Muslim-Christian tensions are softening in Sudan - which could set the tone for Africa.

In a large, dusty courtyard in Sudan's capital, exuberant shouts of "Yesu Chrisoo" ring out amid the rhythmic thumping of tribal drums. Two hundred Episcopalians have gathered under a giant shade tree to praise, pray - and build.

After three decades of meeting in rented churches and borrowed courtyards, the group is yearning to construct a cathedral. It'll be a tribute to their faith, a place to educate their children - a church of their own.

They did have a cathedral once. The Islamic government confiscated it in 1971. It's now a national museum. Similar things have happened for years. Just in the past month, officials razed 13 Christian churches in Khartoum's outlying shanty towns, according to the Sudan Council of Churches.

But an end to Sudan's 20-year civil war - between mostly Muslim northerners and Christian and traditional southerners - is in sight. Conciliation is in the air. Officials appear to be moderating their religious policies.

Now the test is whether Sudan can morph from an ethno-religious killing ground into a modern melting pot with robust religious tolerance. The outcome will deeply affect the future of Africa's vastest country. And it could set a tone of religious civility for the nearby Middle East, and for Africa, where Muslim-Christian tensions are rising.

"The government is beginning to support all faiths," the Bishop of Khartoum, Ezekiel Kondo, tells the congregation. "But we will not succeed unless we continue knocking on the door," he says, meaning they must raise money, scout land, and lobby for permission to build.

An impact on Africa

Whether they succeed - and whether Sudan succeeds - matters for Africa. Growing numbers of Africans are converting to Islam and Christianity. There's an inflow of Islamic fundamentalism. Both trends are adding to - and sometimes causing - strife.

In neighboring Chad, low-level fighting continues between Arab northerners and black African southerners. In Nigeria, the government is fending off political and armed attacks from disaffected Muslims. In Kenya, some Islamic leaders want strict sharia, Islamic law, imposed. They threaten to secede if it's not. "If a pluralist, democratic Sudan can be created," says a senior Western diplomat here, "it can be a model for the rest of Africa."

Aiming to build a church is a leap of faith for this Sudanese congregation. The government hasn't allowed a major church to be built in decades. But things appear to be shifting, partly because of international pressure. Western diplomats are pushing the government to safeguard religious freedom. Sudan is yearning to reestablish ties with the West - after years of antiterrorist sanctions.

"Nations, just like people, can have moments of temper," says Abdul-Rahim Ali Mohamed Ibrahim, a leading Islamic scholar in Khartoum. During the 1990s, he says, some in the government had visions of a pure Islamic state spreading its values across the region. That fervor is now receding.

A fresh forum

The government recently set up the Inter-Religious Council, a forum for dialogue between faiths. It's also allowing church groups in internal-refugee camps to apply for building permits. And a local teenager named Intisar Bakri Abdulgader, charged with having a baby out of wedlock, was spared from being lashed 100 times last week under sharia law.

But all is not yet harmonious, Christians here say. The Episcopal group may be forced to leave its borrowed courtyard, which belongs to an evangelical seminary. The reason: The government is supporting a "renegade" bishop as he establishes a nearby pro-government church. The seminary has begun pressuring the main group to find another worship spot. Parishioners speculate the other bishop is behind the pressure.

It's a familiar divide-and-conquer tactic. When authorities confiscated the cathedral in 1971, they built a replacement on a remote site. Khartoum's Episcopals split over whether to use the new church. This group opted not to use the government-built church.

The government also requires all schools - even private Christian ones - to use Islamic-oriented curriculum. And in the internal-refugee camps, the demolitions have wreaked havoc. Nearly 2 million southerners fled the war and have settled around Khartoum. The aim of the demolitions is to bring order to chaotic camps. Some 25,000 homes are set to be demolished, aid groups say. After a neighborhood is bulldozed, residents can apply for new plots. But many are left without shelter for extended periods.

The demolitions appear not to be directly aimed at Christians. But critics say officials often refuse to, for instance, redesign roads that run right through the middle of a church. Christians see it as evidence of government malice.

Ultimately, achieving religious coexistence may require some creativity.

Government and rebel negotiators at the peace talks, for instance, struck a compromise this month over banking practices. It's called "One central bank, two windows" - that is, one teller window for Islamic banking, which shuns interest, and one for traditional banking. There's also talk of making Khartoum a sharia-free zone.

Speaking to the congregants, Bishop Kondo points them to Romans 12. The 10th verse could stand as a motto for the new Sudan: "Love one another warmly, and be eager to show respect for one another."

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