Mission to the Nuba Mountains
“Let the peoples praise Thee, O God; let all the peoples praise Thee!
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy!” Psalm 67:3-4
Sudan in the Bible
It was an honour to go to a land that has a rich heritage in the Bible and in missions’ history. Sudan, known in the Scriptures as Cush, has a lineage of Christianity going back to A.D. 37. In Acts 8, the evangelist Philip was led by God to encounter the treasurer of queen Candice from modern-day Sudan. We read that Philip explained the Scriptures, “preached Jesus to him” and then baptised him. This man from Sudan would go back to his queen with the greatest treasure of all – the message of salvation.
This is not the only mention of Sudan, or Cush, in the Bible. There are numerous mentions and prophecies about this land. Such examples are found in 2 Kings 19:1-9, Isaiah 37:1-10, Jeremiah 38:7-13, Nahum 3:9-10, to name a few. Perhaps the most exciting is the promise in Psalm 68:31 which reads:
“Cush will submit herself to God”
The History of the Sudanese Church
From AD 37, the Church in Sudan grew rather rapidly. By AD 580, the whole Nubian kingdom in Sudan adopted Christianity as the official religion. However, within the next century, the church of Sudan would face opposition from Islamic forces, which they steadily resisted. 600 years later, a more radical Islamic power took control of Egypt and began waves of assaults on the Nubians.
In the 1600s the Catholic church endeavoured to send missionaries to Sudan. By the 1800s, they had successfully started schools and farms and won many converts. In the late nineteenth century, Missionaries from the United Presbyterian Church of America, Sudan Interior Mission and Africa Inland Mission, progressively entered the country. Christianity expanded across the land. Churches, schools, mission stations, and hospitals were started. Bibles were translated into local languages. The light of the Gospel shone brightly.
Despite the persecution of the Islamic government since 1957 expelling missionaries, seizing Christian schools and changing the day of rest from Sunday to Friday, the Christians of Sudan, particularly in the South, have resisted this external persecution. The Arab Government in the North of Sudan has slaughtered, pillaged, arrested, crucified, forcefully Islamised and enslaved thousands of black indigenous people of Sudan, especially Christians.
In response to this terrorism, the predominantly Christian South fought back. Under John Garang, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) resisted Islamic persecution. These malnourished SPLA soldiers have fought under the scorching sun with very few resources, often feeling as thought the rest of the world had forgotten them.
Since 1995 Frontline Fellowship has been ministering in war-torn Sudan. Mission teams have delivered hundreds of thousands of Bibles, hymn books, Gospels, Scripture booklets, farming tools and seed to the people of Sudan. Frontline delivered the first complete Bibles in the Moru language, pioneered and trained the first chaplains for the SPLA, set up clinics and mission stations to help the Sudanese. Dr Peter Hammond also introduced missions such as Samaritans Purse to Sudan, who have done an incredible amount of relief aid and ministry. Since 1996, Frontline Fellowship has been behind enemy lines, in the Nuba Mountains, an Island of Christianity in a sea of Islam.
Our mission has also advocated for the Christians of Sudan and created awareness which helped lead to the secession of South Sudan from Sudan in 2011. Sadly, due in large part to American foreign policy, South Sudan declared itself a secular state, and appointed leaders of questionable allegiance whose agendas lead to factions within the military and division across the country. I saw some of the disasters South Sudan is facing now during my most recent mission to South Sudan and the Nuba Mountains.
Arriving in Juba was arriving at chaos. The International airport was a disorganised crowd in a tattered tent next to a busy airstrip. I was meant to connect with a local contact, but he was nowhere to be found. Despite the rabble and notoriously corrupt officials at customs, I managed to make it out with relative ease. I exited the airport and walked across the dusty road under the scorching sun, trying to ignore the aggressively grasping crowd attempting to “help” carry my bags. Thankfully, I found a friendly man working in a rather quiet office (storage container) nearby the airport. He allowed me to use his phone and call around until I could find someone who would collect me. Providentially, this helpful man also happened to be a catholic. I spent about 20 minutes with him, sharing the Gospel. He understood the message clearly, and he was especially grateful when I presented him with a Bible in English.
After being collected at the airport, I had to obtain permission to head into the Nuba Mountains, which is a war-torn resistance controlled area of Sudan. The Nuba people are thought of as rebels by the Khartoum (Arab/Muslim) government. They are marginalised because of their race, land and faith. About 50% of Nubans are believed to be Christians, which makes opposition from the Islamic government of Sudan even more severe. Churches and Christian schools are the most common targets of terror bombings. Many missionaries and relief-aid workers lamented that they have been trying for years to get approval to work in the Nuba Mountains without any success. I was blessed to gain my approval letter from South Sudan authorities within just 10 minutes of meeting the local authority in charge and I did not even have to pay a bribe!
As I drove through Juba, I was reminded of the very severe self-inflicted trauma which South Sudan has faced in recent years. The entire country is a high conflict area filled with every kind of humanitarian disaster and sickness one can think of. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army are constantly fighting rebel groups and elements of it are even participating in criminal activities, such as looting and stealing from civilians, themselves. There is no municipal electricity in the entire country; water accessibility and sanitation remain disastrous problems. Measles, TB, HIV AIDs, typhoid and malaria are typical infirmities. Driving past the presidential compound, I observed the 500-meter-long wall covered in bullet holes from a recent battle between the national army and a rebel group wanting to gain control of the country.
NGOs are the biggest employers in South Sudan. I have never witnessed so many NGOs working in a single area in my whole life. Sadly, the work of NGOs has not helped missionaries with their task of Gospel preaching and discipleship. Many local South Sudanese now expect foreigners to provide jobs and handouts, not something as simple and mundane as sound Biblical teaching. However, this would not be my problem to battle this time around. I would focus my energy further north, in the Nuba Mountains.
I served with one other teammate. Our goal was to train and assist the local church with discipleship development and evangelism training, research and document least-reached and unreached people’s groups, and develop a strategy for mass Bible distribution. The Nuba Mountains are in great need of evangelism and discipleship. There are many Muslims and Animists throughout the Nuba Mountains. A recent temporary cease-fire between the government of Khartoum and the people of the liberated areas of Nuba made this an ideal time for us to travel and visit areas that would be extremely dangerous otherwise.
Our ministry in the Nuba mountains began after our team hitched an extremely bumpy and dusty 8 hour ride into our first place of meetings. The church where we would serve had experienced 18 bombings from Antonov aircrafts in just 12 months! It was damaged beyond repair so that it needed to be completely rebuilt.
As we approached the church on Sunday morning, we heard sounds of singing and bells ringing. When I entered the church, I saw that the ringing bells were actually musical instruments made by the congregation. They took artillery shells from high-powered guns and tapped against them with smaller metal bars to make a chiming sound. These artillery remains, meant for war, are now being used to make music to the Lord.
Problems of the Persecuted
While this church, 250 people strong, is a testimony to the Lord’s grace during times of hardship, they face the same challenges that many churches in unrestricted countries face. Peace and comfort can easily become idols for many Christians and it seems that this is also the case with the persecuted church. Many congregation leaders bemoaned the fact that during the cease-fire church-members have become awfully lax in their attitude toward Christian service and dedication to Christ. We witnessed this first-hand with the lean attendance at our evangelism workshops.
Our first workshop was with the large congregation of 250 people. Only about 40 people attended on the first day and about 20 people attended on days 2 and 3. Admittedly, this is still better than the average evangelism workshop attendance I have seen in my homeland South Africa. Many of the participants who attended this first day of the workshop did not know how to clearly articulate their faith, and some did not even understand the Gospel. Thankfully, we could clearly teach them about the way of Salvation and how to share it with others.
The best parts about the evangelism workshops are the practicals. What good is it to learn about evangelism without actually going out and evangelising the unsaved? We led our group of about 20 evangelists out into the market place to share the way of salvation with the lost. Our team split up and energetically proclaimed the Gospel to as many people as we could reach.
When we arrived at the market, I saw two men sitting down drinking tea. They seemed friendly enough, so I approached them. They did not understand English and my interpreter had vanished. Things quickly became awkward. Just then, a group of people formed around me to see what this foreigner had to say for himself. Thankfully, one of the curious onlookers could speak English and volunteered to interpret for me. In the end, I was able to share the Gospel with a group of about 15 young men, some of whom were Muslims. I thanked the young man for helping me share the Gospel, and he expressed his gratitude for the message I brought. I asked him if he was a Christian. He responded that he was a Muslim! I encouraged him to ask God to reveal Himself and to call upon the Lord Jesus to save him from his sins.
When I walked through the same market place the next day, the young man who had interpreted for me ran up to me and offered to buy me lunch. I sat down with him and got to know him a bit more and then we started talking about spiritual things. He told me that he believed everything I said the day before. He knows that he is a sinner. He believes in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. He accepts the Trinity. But, he was unwilling to reject Islam! When I pointed out that his beliefs were in stark contrast with Islamic teaching, he admitted that to be true, but he could not reject Islam, Muhammad, or the Qur’an. I told him that the religion of Islam spreads lies about Jesus Christ whom he claims to love. I said that he would not allow someone to spread lies about his family, so why would he tolerate a religion that spreads lies about his Saviour? This seemed far too much for him to swallow, but he thanked me for sharing the truth with him, and ended our lunch. We parted in good spirits, but I continue to pray that this man comes to wholeheartedly surrender to Christ.
The encounter with this young Muslim man was not unique. As the mission progressed, we encountered many Muslims in our evangelism efforts. When we spoke with them, it was apparent that they were Muslim by tradition only. Most of the people we spoke to had no idea what the Qur’an even taught. They were wide open to listening to what we had to say, but when we challenged them on the fact that their belief system contradicts the way of salvation as revealed in the Bible, they completely shut down. They simply said that they are not theologians; they are uneducated; and they are not willing to listen. There are a few reasons I believe this to be the case. First, they are taught the superstitious belief that Christians are poor people and when one converts to Christianity, they will become poor. Second, fear of losing one’s identity is a major problem. Their religion is tied in with their work, tribe and family life. To reject Islam is to reject their life and loved ones. Third, there is spiritual resistance. The Bible describes unregenerate people as dead, blind, suppressors of truth. Unless the Holy Spirit works mightily in them, they will not believe.
Although some people were shut off to the Gospel, many listened, and many believed. At the end of our first outreach, the enthusiastic evangelists were beaming with joy and energetically sharing testimonies about their encounters with unsaved people. We pray that God will use those Gospel seeds to reap a great harvest.
Schools of the Nuba Mountains
One of our primary tasks was to evangelise and encourage school children. This is a very neglected ministry in the Nuba mountains, yet it is full of opportunity. The students and teachers alike are receptive to the Gospel. They are also in critical need of encouragement. Most schools do not have pens, paper, chalk, or even textbooks for the students. The teachers are often located far away from their families and always work without pay. Some of the schools we visited were bombed several times by Khartoum. Some schools are hidden away in the mountains to avoid air-attacks. All of the schools have trenches and holes which serve as bomb-shelters for the students to hide in whenever Antonovs fly overhead.
Thankfully, these schools are always happy to receive visitors, especially when they are bringing words from God. Most of the areas where these schools are located are isolated, and many children have seen few, if any white people before. The result is a fearful fascination with the Khawaja (white man). Sometimes the children would be so excited to see us, they couldn’t keep still. Other times the children were so afraid that they were literally crying from terror. At all the school assemblies, students stand outside in a giant square. We stand in the middle and address them. Once, as I walked over to some of the children during my message, the little boys got so scared that they ran away! Their faces were full of terror as they fled the school premises. Some of the teachers had to go running after them to try get them back. I don’t think they found all the boys, and it was difficult to keep everyone’s attention after that.
Some of the schools we visited were Islamic schools. The story of Abraham sacrificing his son works very effectively as a bridge to share the Gospel with Muslim children and teachers, since this story is also in the Qur’an. We pray that God uses the Gospel to bring many to salvation.
Our ministry also focused on pastors and evangelists. Many of these men work very hard, without pay. We met men who had been arrested and tortured for spreading the Gospel. One man showed us the scars on his wrists and legs from daily beatings he received while he was a prisoner of the Sudan Armed Forces. All the people of the Nuba Mountains have been affected by the terror bombings, land invasions and scorched earth policy from Khartoum. In spite of this, the Christian Faith is spreading. More and more people are coming to Christ daily. Even though there is tremendous suffering, there are countless stories of God’s grace and protection during times of intense strife. One pastor has been in a high conflict area for most of his ministry. He and his family of eight children have never been harmed by the intense war around them, although he was upset that one of the arial bombardments killed his donkey. Churches and Bible colleges have been bombed numerous times without any injury to anyone. Some keep the bomb remains and others leave the unexploded bombs where they are as a testimony to God’s grace. In fact, the church we held our pastor’s training had holes in the roof and walls from bomb-blasts. It was a very sobering reminder of what our brothers and sisters in Christ face in their war-torn world.
Our mission took us to places where other missionaries are not willing to go. Some foreigners are doing excellent work in the major villages and busy areas of the Nuba Mountains, but almost no one does work on the outskirts, near the battlefront.
We proceeded to a village market about 12km away from enemy territory to minister the Gospel. I started open-air preaching. In order to get people’s attention, I started asking different people standing around why they think there is so much suffering in the world. One man shouted out “Omar Al Bashir!”, the name of the current dictator of Sudan. Just then, people started taking out their mobile phones to presumably take pictures and videos of me. Not only was I in an Islamic area preaching the Gospel, but I was now in an open discussion about the suffering caused by the head and chief of the Sudan Armed Forces – who were a 15-minute drive away! I was reminded about the warning issued by the US State Department, cautioning all westerners not to go to Sudan because of terrorism, hijacking, kidnapping, armed robbery and suicide bombings!There was nothing I could really do except continue to preach the Gospel. Plus, I had everyone’s attention, which is exactly what I wanted. I used the opportunity to explain that yes, Omar Al Bashir is one of the problems. In fact, the world is filled with people just like Bashir. The world is full of people who have wicked hearts and love to do wicked things. That’s the problem with the world and that’s the problem with every single person who was listening to my message. We all need forgiveness from our wicked pasts, we need God to replace our wicked hearts, and give us new lives in Christ. At the end, I made an invitation for anyone who wanted to call upon the Lord to save them from their sins. About 15-20 people, some of them Muslim, came forward to publically call upon Jesus Christ.
Our focus included not only teaching but also modelling evangelism. After teaching the students about evangelism, we took them out to one of the busy market places to share the Gospel. I started by open-air preaching. There must have been about 300 people within earshot. I proclaimed the Gospel loudly, and about 30 people who responded at the end. We also went to the cattle market, and I spoke to about 10 men under the trees. They all came from different backgrounds. I spent time answering questions they had about Christianity, turning it into opportunities to share the Gospel.
Praise and Prayer
Our ministry in the Nuba Mountains did not come without challenges. We did not have our own vehicle, so we spent much of our time hitchhiking, catching rides on the back of motorcycles, or in another ministries vehicle. I was also down with sickness, some kind of stomach bug, a number of times. Heat, cross-cultural communication, challenges and confusion and spiritual warfare meant that we had to draw deeply from the well of prayer and the Word.
Pray for the Church in South Sudan, facing conflict and disaster as well as the temptation to rely on secular NGOs instead of being stewards of what the Lord has entrusted to them. Pray for the Church in the Nuba Mountains to stand strong in the face of persecution and temptation from without and apathy from within. Pray for the unreached people groups, that many more evangelists would take the Gospel to these people. Pray for pastors and leaders facing to remain firm in the Faith, rooted in the Word and confident in the Gospel.
In 2018, we will be a part of an initiative to deliver 40 000 Bibles and 50 000 Creation to Christ story books to the Nuba Mountains. This is an incredible logistical challenge. Corruption, highjacking, and theft are major oppositions to our operation. Please keep these plans and difficulties in your prayers.
Learn more about Sudan
If you would like to learn more about Sudan, the Nuba Mountains and Islamic persecution in North Africa, I recommend reading Faith Under Fire in Sudan by Dr Peter Hammond. If you are interested in viewing first-hand footage and testimonies from our persecuted Sudanese brothers and sisters in Christ, watch the 3-part Sudan: The Hidden Holocaust DVD. These resources can be accessed from....
Christian Liberty Books
PO Box 358
Tel: (021) 689 7478 Fax: (086) 551 7490
“And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, to Him who sits on the Throne and to the Lamb be ‘blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever’” Revelation 5:13.
Rev. John Clifford
P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725
Cape Town South Africa
Tel: 021 689 4480
It was insightful to read this account of your mission trip. Sudan is one of the countries I intercede for on my "suffering church" prayer list and this is the first time I have read an update on what I knew, which was just that "Christians are persecuted in Sudan".
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