In Sudan's Nuba Mountains, Christians, Muslims live together peacefully

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey

By Paul Jeffrey

NUBA MOUNTAINS, Sudan (CNS) — While tense relations between religious groups contribute
to violence in many parts of the world today, Christians and Muslims in the
war-ravaged Nuba Mountains of Sudan say they are getting along just fine.

For outsiders, it takes a while to

“When I first arrived in the Nuba
Mountains, I was confused. Everyone dressed the same. Women would wear head
coverings, but then I saw them in church receiving the sacraments,” said Comboni
Sister Angelina Nyakuru, who serves as head nurse at the Catholic
Church-sponsored Mother of Mercy Hospital in Gidel.

“At Christmas, the Muslims come to
celebrate with the Christians. And on Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, we go to
their celebrations. It’s peculiar to this place. There is peaceful coexistence
between Christians and Muslims, as well as with those who practice traditional
religions. Muslim parents usually don’t object if their children want to become
Christian. In fact, when they receive the sacraments, their parents accompany
them to the church to support them.”

Sister Nyakuru, who has been in the Nuba
Mountains since 2008, compares the situation to her country of Uganda.

“Back home, people kill each other over
religion, and people who convert have to run away for their lives. Here,
families are all mixed, and no one has any problems,” she said.

Brother Isaac Kornyando was born in the Nuba
Mountains and, for more than two decades, has served as an Apostle of Jesus
brother, doing pastoral work in Kauda.

“You don’t know what religion people
are if they don’t tell you, because we eat together and drink together and walk
together,” he said. “You have to ask them what religion they profess.
Then they tell you.”

Toma Konyono is a reporter for Voice of
Peace, the Catholic radio station in Gidel. She and her husband are Christians,
but she said all of her in-laws are Muslims.

“We are a peaceful people, and we love
to celebrate Christmas and Eid with each other,” she said. “During
Ramadan, I go with my recorder to the mosque in Kauda and record their
celebration, and we play some of their songs on the radio. They are very happy.
On their feast days, we bring their voices to our listeners.”

Konyono said the station’s programming is not
directed at just Catholics.

“When we discuss health or women’s
concerns, those aren’t Christian topics or Muslim topics. They are topics that
affect everyone in the Nuba Mountains, and we want the station to be a place
where everyone has a voice and to which everyone listens,” she said.

Dr. Tom Catena, a U.S. physician at the
hospital in Gidel, told Catholic News Service that interfaith tensions are few.

“Once in a while, some parents will
resist their child marrying someone from another religion, but there’s no
harshness about it. There’s no harshness toward each other, no negativity, and
you simply don’t hear Christians or Muslims talking bad about each other,”
said Catena, a lay missionary for the U.S.-based Catholic Medical Mission

“That’s strange in some ways, because
Islamic fundamentalism so strict in the north (of Sudan). The government here (in
the Nuba Mountains) is very strict about being secular. They don’t want any of
this crap of religious people forcing their laws on others.”

People of the Nuba Mountains have been at
war with the central government in Khartoum for decades. The conflict has been
marked by frequent bombing of civilian targets by Sudan’s military. While a 2-year-old
cease-fire has stopped the aerial bombing, sporadic fighting on the ground
continues between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation

Ugandan Comboni Sister Pollicarp Amiyo, a
nurse in Gidel, said years of brutal attacks by the Khartoum government have
strengthened a common identity as Nuba people that’s more important than
religious differences.

“When the planes come overhead and
begin to bomb us, everyone suffers. The bombs don’t distinguish between
Christians and Muslims. That unites us even more,” she said.

A leader of the mosque in Kauda agrees.

“We are one family in the Nuba. The
land belongs to God, and people practice the religion they want without
problems,” said Issa Abrahim al-Madiza.

“What is a problem for us is that a
group of people in Khartoum sees us as insects, not as people. That’s why they
send the Antonovs to bomb us,” he said, referring to the Russian-made
cargo planes used as bombers by the Sudanese government.

According to John Ashworth, a former Mill
Hill missionary priest who serves as an adviser to the Catholic bishops in
Sudan and South Sudan, the healthy interfaith atmosphere in the Nuba Mountains
helps explain the brutality of the Khartoum government’s military response.

“That they get along so well is one of
the reasons why they’re seen as a threat by Khartoum. If there were only
Christians in the Nuba Mountains, they would be perceived as less of a threat.
But the fact that Muslims and Christians live together happily is just too much
for the rulers in Khartoum,” he said.

Retired Bishop Macram Max Gassis, the former
bishop of El Obeid who, for years, has supervised from Kenya the church’s work
in the Nuba Mountains, said religious identity has nothing to do with deciding
where to provide education or health care or fresh water.

“When we dug a well in a Nuba village
where there was not even one Christian, and I went for the inauguration, I told
the people, ‘This water is not Christian water. This is God’s water for all of
us,'” he said. “That’s it. We share the same earth. Why can’t we live
in peace?”

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