Church damaged by arson attacks


May 3, 2006 (Compass)

Facing threats from a local Muslim militia leader, Christians in central Sudan have decided to leave their church half-built after it went up in flames the day after Christmas last year.

The Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS) congregation in the Nuba Mountains town of Shatt Damam hopes that partial reconstruction will help prevent the church building from being burned for the fourth time.

Aboud Kafi Jamaiza, an evangelist in the congregation, informed ECS diocesan headquarters in Kadugli last month that the building has burned down three times since it was erected in July 2005. Twice in September last year, the congregation of 190 was forced to rebuild their church after the wood structure was set on fire.

Hoping to deter the unknown culprits from burning the church again during Christmas, the congregation organized an all-night prayer vigil on Christmas Eve, Jamaiza said.

But on December 26, the church again went up in flames, this time with explosives placed inside the building so that no one could attempt to rescue the structure's wooden poles.

According to Jamaiza, local Muslim militia leader Kafitiyar Al Yideen has often threatened church members, but there was no direct proof that he was behind the church burnings.

A local Muslim chief sympathetic to the plight of the ECS congregation said that Al Yideen had hired area criminals to burn down the church each time it was rebuilt. The Muslim chief, who requested anonymity, told Kadugli ECS leaders that Al Yideen has warned him not to accept Christian-run schools or clinics in the town.

Evangelist Jamaiza said that in early April, Al Yideen publicly questioned the existence of the church, now much smaller with only two walls and a partial roof.

"Why is it still standing?" the Muslim militia leader, who commands several hundred soldiers, was said to have asked. According to Jamaiza, locals responded that they would burn down the church again as soon as reconstruction was completed.

The ECS congregation has filed complaints of arson with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the autonomous authority ruling southern Sudan and this area of the Nuba Mountains. No action has been taken, however.

Al Yideen is suspected of plotting the January burning of an SPLM/A school in Shatt Damam, staffed by both Christians and Muslims, apparently because English was the language of instruction.

For now, the Shatt Damam church members hope that their makeshift shack will go untouched until they can make enough bricks to build a more fire-resistant church.

The animist majority of the Shatt Damam's 500 people live in poverty. The town's small Muslim community has a relatively luxurious brick mosque, built with the help of Kuwaiti funds.

Denied Deeds

Some of the heaviest fighting during the nation's 21-year civil war took place in the Nuba Mountains, situated between northern and southern Sudan. The conflict began in 1983, pitting Arab Muslim northerners against black Christian, Muslim and animist southerners.

Muslim government forces and local Muslim state-sponsored militias often targeted churches during attacks on Nuba towns.

Now more than a year since the SPLM/A and the northern government signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that granted southern autonomy, local churches are still struggling to recover from the civil war.

At ECS diocesan headquarters in Kadugli, Bishop Adam Andudu last month reported a decrease in persecution since the signing of the peace agreement in January 2005, but he said that the church is still struggling to gain full use of its land.

Though all other property owners in Kadugli have been given deeds to their land, the ECS has not been granted deeds to the Kadugli Cathedral Jaafer and other ECS buildings that were built before land registration came into effect, the bishop said.

The ECS is also trying to reclaim use of a church built in the town of Salara in 1937. The military began occupying the church buildings in the mid-1990s, and since the signing of the peace agreement it has refused to vacate the premises.

Soldiers stole Katcha church roof in 1999

In the town of Katcha, 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) west of Shatt Damam, an ECS congregation of approximately 250 has reported continued problems with Muslim tribal chief Dedan Mahmoud. The chief built his house on church property in 2004, claiming that the land belonged to his forefathers.

Closely associated with Mahmoud, the town's Muslim imam has used his mosque loudspeakers to insult Christians since the mosque was built next to the church in 1997.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), northern funded militias like Al Yideen's in Shatt Damam pose a threat to peace throughout southern Sudan.

The National Congress Party, the ruling party in the northern government, "has not ended its support of southern ethnic militias -- which is part of its long-range counterinsurgency strategy," the March 8 report stated.

Several commissions to be set up under the peace agreement, including a human rights commission and a commission for the rights of non-Muslims in the national capital, have also failed to materialize, HRW said.

The Nuba Mountains are home to approximately 100 tribes that speak more than 57 languages.

 

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