Signs of Tolerance amid Religious Strife in Sudan ; Muslim-Christian Tensions Are Softening in Sudan - Which Could Set the Tone for Africa

Article excerpt

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. …