Sudan’s most Christian neighborhood is under attack.
Collateral damage amid severe clashes between the army and its previously partnered militia, churches in the Bahri district of the capital Khartoum and surrounding areas have witnessed the worst of the past three weeks of fighting.
The Evangelical Presbyterian church suffered a fire as munitions exploded in a nearby market. The Coptic Orthodox church was struck by a rocket. And All Saints Anglican Cathedral was occupied by militant forces.
Over 500 people have been killed, with more than 4,000 injured.
“The situation is very serious,” said Ismail Kanani, general secretary of the Sudanese Bible Society. “I am trapped in my house, without power and water.”
Prices for food and fuel are skyrocketing, electricity supply has been cut off in much of the capital, and hospitals have been looted and are barely operating. A three-day truce has been agreed—and violated—to allow civilian escape and embassy evacuations.
Almost all Christians have left the area, said Abdalrahim Musa, director of the Evangelical Cultural Center of the Khartoum Presbyterian church. An eyewitness to the carnage, like many other Christians he fled three hours south to Wad Madani, an area relatively distant from the conflict.
But in their absence, he hears reports of widespread looting of their properties.
They are not the only ones displaced. More than 100,000 people have fled Sudan, according to the United Nations, with an additional 334,000 displaced within the country.
Foreign governments have frantically sought to evacuate their citizens. Under cover of armed drones, the US organized a land convoy for 300 Americans and other nationalities to the Red Sea city of Port Sudan. From there, many board a boat to Saudi Arabia for relocation elsewhere.
It is more difficult for Sudanese—and sometimes exploitative. One family stated it was stuck at the Egyptian border, unable to pay the $40,000 fare demanded for crossing.
While there is no collected list of Christian casualties, three family members of the guard at Musa’s center were shot in the head, presumably caught in the crossfire. Two children from his church were also killed, as was his elderly Orthodox neighbor.
Also a professor of New Testament at Nile Theological College (NTC), Musa mourned the passing of three members of his seminary student’s family, who died when part of their roof collapsed upon them, hit by a mortar shell.
Fighting began on April 15, but had been months in the making.
A once-promising popular revolution deposed the three-decade autocratic rule of president Omar al-Bashir in 2019, ushering in a democratic transition. A joint military-civilian sovereign council was established, which oversaw removal of Islam as the state religion and repealed the death penalty for apostasy.
But in 2021, General Abdelfattah al-Burhan and his vice president, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), deposed the civilian prime minister in a coup. Demonstrations exploded again, as the international community froze its promised financial assistance.
An already struggling economy collapsed further, with aid groups providing humanitarian support to one-third of the population of 46 million. But in late March, civilian parties signed a new framework agreement to re-establish the democratic transition, with power pledged to transfer by early April.
Negotiations postponed the final agreement a few days, and then indefinitely. The sticking point was military reform, with Burhan intent on integrating the RSF—Bashir’s former personal guard—into the regular army within two years. Dagalo insisted on ten.
And then the clashes started.
Both forces have over 100,000 fighting members, with the army superior in air power, bombing RSF urban encampments. But the RSF is more battle tested, having served as a mercenary force in Yemen, and has bases spread throughout Sudan.
“Once you leave your house,” stated an anonymous Open Doors research expert on East Africa, “you're not sure whether you can come back alive.”
A Sudanese, the expert related that Christians previously had cautious hope that their situation would improve, but are now fearful of another religious dictatorship.
Dagalo has tried to position himself accordingly.
“We are fighting against radical Islamists who hope to keep Sudan isolated and in the dark, and far removed from democracy,” he tweeted. “We will continue to pursue Al-Burhan and bring him to justice.”
Following their partnership in the coup, Burhan sidelined or arrested democratic activists, while repopulating the governing infrastructure with Islamist bureaucrats from the Bashir era.
But Dagalo’s democratic credentials are also to be doubted, as the RSF is reported to have led the intermittent but steady crackdown on demonstrations. The most egregious assault killed over 100 people in 2019, as reformists called for both military men to be held accountable.
Both were also active in Darfur, where war crimes led to Bashir’s indictment by the International Criminal Court. And each has international ties in a larger geopolitical struggle for influence in east Africa.
“Christians do not trust either side,” said Musa. “Their real fear is a return to the recent history of violations against their rights and properties.”
He identified both figures as part of the old regime. But Dagalo’s violations extended also to Christian areas in the southern Nuba Mountains, he said. And Burhan rose to power on the back of the popular uprising, but undermines it through his reliance on the religious power base of Bashir.
But one Christian leader, requesting anonymity, has a preference.
“Both are rejected,” he said. “But in the event of the victory of the Sudanese army, the Islamic movement will return to power.”
Aida Weran sees it as a false choice.
“Both generals are two faces of the same coin when it comes to implementing root Islamic rule,” said the NTC academic officer, who has relocated to the nearby city of Omdurman. “But ultimately, religion is just a superficial means of manipulating citizens for greater economic and political control.”
On the whole, said the Open Doors source, Christians lament there is no civilian partner. Whoever wins from the military will be unlikely to back improvements to religious freedom and human rights, while Islamists are taking the opportunity to preach the evils of democracy in favor of sharia law.
“Unless the military are told to go back to their barracks and leave the administration of civilian government,” he stated, “the situation in Sudan will not improve soon.”
The Association of Evangelicals in Africa is “deeply concerned.”
“We believe in the power of prayer,” read its joint statement with the World Evangelical Association (WEA), “and urge the church to intercede for Sudan during this difficult time.”
But whatever the Islamist protestations of the combatants, Noha Kassa said there is no religious element to this struggle. The deacon at Bahri’s Evangelical Presbyterian Church joined the WEA and the World Council of Churches in their emphasis on prayer, offering her own.
For the families displaced from their homes, unable to return.
For the sick and injured who cannot find medical care.
For the poor and those trapped inside, lacking food.
For those who lost a loved one, to have God’s comfort.
“Pray for all of this to stop soon,” said Kassa. “And for all who have lost hope, that they might find it again.”
One source spoke of three evangelical schools, providing emergency shelter.
“The church is not prepared for such disasters,” he said. “We hope that the global church will continue to pray for Sudan.”
For now, Christians feel under pressure. Musa asks for international organizations to help rebuild the churches. Kassa asks God for life to return to normal. For his part, Kanani reflects upon Galatians 6:10, and asks for prayer that is mindful of all.
His wife and son made it to Cairo. He remains behind in a safe location.
“War does not differentiate between the people,” Kanani said. “Please continue to pray for the people of Sudan—especially the Christians.”