In light of the news coverage and discussions this week of the referendum regarding independence for southern Sudan, I thought it would be helpful to spend a few moments looking at Sudan's remarkable and tumultuous Christian history.
The first words of Philip Jenkin’s book* are brutally frank: “Religions die.”
*The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died
The history of the Sudan is a long demonstration of that fact. But the Sudan is also a testament to the fact that religions can also be reborn in the very place where they seem to have been extinguished.
Sudan was, for centuries, the heart of a vigorous Coptic Orthodox kingdom.
By the end of the 6th century Nubia, as Sudan was then known, had coverted to Monophysite Coptic Christianity (although there is some evidence of Byzantine Christanity in the early years as well.) When Egypt was conquered by the Islamic armies, Nubia was cut off from the rest of Christendom. Most people, and therefore, most Christians lived in northern Nubia.
In 641 and 651 Arab armies from Egypt invaded Nubia but were repulsed. Christian Nubia was one of the few countries who successfully resisted Muslim conquest in the first Muslim century. A rare treaty known as the baqt was signed creating a relative peace between the two sides that lasted until the 13th century. The baqt lasted nearly 700 years and may be the longest lasting treaty in history.
The Christian kingdom of Makuria expanded. The period from roughly 750 to 1150 saw the kingdom stable and prosperous, in what has been called the “Golden Age”. The king of Makuria became the defender of the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria, occasionally intervening militarily to protect him.
Exquisite frescoes from that era survived. Many, like this stunning image of St. Anna now in a Warsaw museum, were removed before the Cathedral of Faras was drowned by the building of Aswan Dam in the 60’s.
Increased aggression from Egypt, and internal discord led to the Makuria collapse in the 14th century. The 15th and 16th centuries saw Christian Nubia become overwhelmingly Muslim. By 1910, the number of Christians in the Sudan was so small that it registered as a percentage of 0.0%.
Then the tide began to turn in a surprising place: southern Sudan.
From 1898, the United Kingdom and Egypt administered all of present day Sudan as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, but northern and southern Sudan were administered as separate provinces. In the very early 1920s, the British passed the Closed Districts Ordinances which stipulated that passports were required for travel between the two zones, and permits were required to conduct business from one zone into the other, and totally separate administrations prevailed. People in the northern zone spoke different languages than those in the southern zone.
The British discouraged Islam in the south and opened the area to Christian missionaries. But the real growth began after the British left and Sudan became independent in 1956. In 2010, 16.5% of Sudanese as a whole and 50 – 70% of people in southern Sudan are Christians. In a century, Sudanese Christians grew at an average rate of over 8% per year, from 2,600 to 6.8 million. (Numbers and graph below from the Atlas of Global Christianity.)
Last year (2010), the Christian community grew by 154,500 and 30% of these new Christians were converts. Most are either evangelical Anglicans or Catholics. Today, Sudan has become the second most Christian nation in north Africa. If the people of southern Sudan vote for independence as expected, their nation will become the only majority Christian nation in north Africa.
John Allen had an interesting side note in today's article (which refers to recent attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt):
In response to the recent outbreak of violence, the BBC has reported that some Coptic Christians living in diaspora have floated the idea of an independent Coptic state in Egypt, similar to the anticipated autonomous state of southern Sudan.