Christianity in Sudan

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Holy Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Khartoum

Christianity has a long history in the region that is now Sudan and South Sudan. Ancient Nubia was reached by Coptic Christianity by the 2nd century. The Coptic Church was later influenced by Greek Christianity, particularly during the Byzantine era. From the 7th century, the Christian Nubian kingdoms were threatened by the Islamic expansion, but the southernmost of these kingdoms, Alodia, survived until 1504.

Southern Sudan (including what is now South Sudan) remained long dominated by traditional (tribal) religions of the Nilotic peoples, with significant conversion to Christianity during the 20th and 21st centuries.


Coptic Christianity[edit]

A fresco showing the birth of Jesus, in Faras cathedral
Reconstruction of a church in Old Dongola

Christianity reached the area of present-day northern Sudan, then called Nubia, by about the end of the first century after Christ.

It greatly developed under the influence of the Eastern Roman Empire.[1] Indeed, Byzantine architecture influenced most of the Christian churches in lower Nubia.[2]

The Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (reigned 527 to 565) made Nubia a stronghold of Christianity during the Middle Ages.[3] By 580 AD Christianity had become the official religion of the northern Sudan, centered around the Faras cathedral.[4]

Modern missionary activity[edit]

During the 19th century, British missionaries re-introduced the Christian faith into South Sudan. British imperial authorities somewhat arbitrarily limited missionary activity to the multi-ethnic southern region.[5] The Church of England and other parts of the Anglican Communion continued to send missionaries and other assistance after the country became independent in 1956, although that also precipitated decades of civil war and persecutions as discussed below.

At the 2011 division which split off South Sudan, over 97% of the population in the remaining Sudan, in the north, adheres to Islam.[6] Religions followed by the South Sudanese include traditional indigenous religions, Christianity and Islam.[7][8] The last census to mention the religion of southerners dates back to 1956 where a majority were classified as following traditional beliefs or were Christian while 18% were Muslim.[9] Scholarly[10][11][12] and some U.S. Department of State sources[13] state that a majority of southern Sudanese maintain traditional indigenous (sometimes referred to as animist) beliefs with those following Christianity in a minority (albeit an influential one), which would make South Sudan one of the very few countries in the world where most people follow traditional indigenous religion. However, according to the U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report of 2012 the majority of the population adhere to Christianity, while reliable statistics on animist and Muslim belief are not available.[14]

The majority of Christians in Sudan adhere either to the Roman Catholic church or to the Anglican churches (represented by the Episcopal Church of the Sudan), but there are several other small denominations represented there including:[citation needed]

  • Africa Inland Church
  • Apostolic Church
  • Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria
  • Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church
  • Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
  • Greek Orthodox Church
  • International church of the Nazarene
  • Jehovah's Witnesses[15]
  • New Apostolic
  • Presbyterian Church of the Sudan
  • Seventh Day Adventist Church
  • Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church
  • Sudan Pentecostal Church
  • Sudan Interior Church
  • Sudan Church of Christ

Roman Catholic missionaries began work in Sudan in 1842; both Anglicans and American Presbyterians began in Sudan in 1899.[citation needed] The Anglicans through the Church Missionary Society had their base in Omdurman, while the Presbyterians began in Khartoum but developed ministry both in the north and in the south. The Sudan Interior Mission began working in the country in 1937. The Africa Inland Mission launched the Africa Inland Church in 1949. In 1964 all foreign missionaries were made to leave southern Sudan because of the civil war. A few groups maintained missionaries in the north. The Sudan Pentecostal Church, which has grown significantly in the south, was started later by the Swedish.

As of 2011, prior to the independence of South Sudan, about 2,009,374 Sudanese practiced Roman Catholicism, mainly in the south (5% of the population were devout Roman Catholics).[citation needed] Nine catholic dioceses include two archdioceses in modern Sudan,[16] with five Cathedrals.[17] The patron saint of the Sudan is the former slave Saint Josephine Bakhita, canonized in 2000.

About 100,000 people or 0.25% of the population belong to various Protestant denominations in northern Sudan. Catholicism is practised by some thousand followers north of Sudan's capital. A 2015 study estimates some 30,000 Muslim converted to Christianity in Sudan, most of them belonging to some form of Protestantism.[18]


Sudan's Christians were persecuted under various military regimes. Sudan's civil wars temporarily ended in 1972, but resumed in 1983, as famine hit the region. Four million people were displaced and two million people died in the two-decade long conflict before a temporary six-year ceasefire was signed in January 2005.[19]

On 16 May 1983, Sudan's Anglican and Roman Catholic clergy signed a declaration that they would not abandon God as God had revealed himself to them under threat of Shariah Law.[20] Anti-Christian persecutions grew particularly after 1985, including murders of pastors and church leaders, destruction of Christian villages, as well as churches, hospitals, schools and mission bases, and bombing of Sunday church services. Lands laid waste and where all buildings were demolished included an area the size of Alaska.[20] Despite the persecutions, Sudanese Christians increased in number from 1.6 million in 1980 to 11 million in 2010, although 22 of the 24 Anglican dioceses operate in exile in Kenya and Uganda, and clergy are unpaid. Four million people remain internally displaced, and another million in the Sudanese diaspora abroad (of which 400,000 - 600,000 in the South Sudanese diaspora).

In 2011, South Sudan voted to secede from the north, effective 9 July.[19] Persecution of Christians there had resumed by then.[15]

The Naivasha Agreement also technically protects non-Muslims in the north. However, some interpretations of Muslim law in Sudan refuse to recognize conversions out of Islam (considering apostacy a crime), and also refuse to recognize marriages to non-Muslims. Sudan is one of the nations where being a Christian is hardest in the world, freedom of religion and belief are systematically violated.[21]

In 2014, there was controversy over the planned execution of Maryam Yaḥyā Ibrahīm Isḥaq for apostasy. She was later released and after further delays left Sudan.[21][22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Christianity in Nubia". Archived from the original on 3 March 2012. Retrieved 20 February 2012.
  2. ^ Mileham, Geoffrey S. (11 August 2010). Photos of Christian Nubia churches.
  3. ^ "Christian Nubia and the Eastern Roman Empire". Retrieved 20 February 2012.
  4. ^ Sheen J. Freedom of Religion and Belief: A World Report. Routledge, 1997. p. 75.
  5. ^ "The Martyrs of Sudan: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow". 16 May 2013. Retrieved 28 December 2018.
  6. ^ "Sudan Overview". UNDP Sudan. Archived from the original on 5 June 2012. Retrieved 20 June 2012.
  7. ^ "South Sudan's Muslims welcome secession". The Daily Star. 9 January 2011.
  8. ^ "South Sudan profile". BBC News. 8 July 2011. Retrieved 9 July 2011.
  9. ^ "South Sudan's Muslims welcome secession". Agence France-Presse. Retrieved 15 August 2011.
  10. ^ Kaufmann, E.P. (2004). Rethinking ethnicity: majority groups and dominant minorities. Routledge. p. 45. ISBN 0203563395.
  11. ^ Minahan, J. (2002). Encyclopedia of the Stateless Nations: S-Z. Greenwood Press. p. 1786. ISBN 0313323844.
  12. ^ Arnold, G (2003). "Book Review: Douglas H. Johnson, The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars". African Journal of Political Science. 8 (1): 147.
  13. ^ "Sudan". Retrieved 21 December 2013.
  14. ^ "International Religious Freedom Report 2012 - South Sudan". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 9 July 2013.
  15. ^ a b Benham, Jason; McDoom, Opheera; Roddy, Michael (8 January 2011). "Jehovah Witnesses say harassed in south Sudan". Juba, South Sudan. Reuters. Archived from the original on 16 May 2014. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  16. ^ "Sudanese Dioceses and Archdiocese". 15 January 2012. Retrieved 20 February 2012.
  17. ^ "Cathedrals in the Republic of Sudan". Retrieved 20 February 2012.
  18. ^ Johnstone, Patrick; Miller, Duane (2015). "Believers in Christ from a Muslim Background: A Global Census". IJRR. 11: 14. Retrieved 20 November 2015.
  19. ^ a b VOMC. "Sudan". The Voice of the Martyrs Canada -. Retrieved 28 December 2018.
  20. ^ a b "Martyrs of Sudan". Retrieved 28 December 2018.
  21. ^ a b Abdelaziz, Salma; Shoichet, Catherine E.; Burke, Daniel; Payne, Ed. "Christian woman in Sudan sentenced to death for her faith". CNN.
  22. ^ "Sudan woman faces death for apostasy". BBC. 15 May 2014. Retrieved 28 December 2018.