Report this from Sudan

by Ellen Davis
Durham, North Carolina - Apostasy is the term applied to religious conversion by those who abhor it, who see conversion as a form of betrayal of family, community, even nation. Underlying the accusation of apostasy is the understanding that religious conviction and practice are public matters. The supposition of many, across both East and West, that religion is a matter of personal salvation and therefore concerns only God and the individual, has not been widely shared by most peoples and cultures throughout history.

Both the term and the intense emotions that attach to it belong to the special mindset of the three monotheistic faiths, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

One might reason that conversions from one monotheistic religion to another should not arouse hostility, since all monotheisms acknowledge the one God of Abraham and prohibit any other. Yet history consistently shows otherwise. The persecution of "apostates" began as soon as there existed more than one form of monotheism. The 1st century Jew, Saul of Tarsus better known as St. Paul had a successful career tracking down and imprisoning Christians, which was terminated only by his own blinding conversion experience. From the 4th century to the mid-20th century, the persecution, massacre or forced conversion of Jews were regular occurrences throughout Christianised Europe. This history of violence, including now the aggressive and militarised forms of proselytising practiced by a small number Islamic groups, is a major factor in the abhorrence of conversion within each of the three monotheistic communities.

There is, however, something new under the sun, namely religiously motivated cooperation among monotheists of different faiths. Sudan might currently be the last place on earth where one would expect to see creative forms of inter-religious cooperation, and at the same time, a diminution of hostility to conversion. Yet such cooperation is evident, especially since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between predominantly Muslim Northern Sudan and the largely Christian South. One notable example is a campaign to promote public education about HIV/AIDS, jointly undertaken by the government and churches in Northern Sudan. This is a dramatic shift for the government, which for years denied that Sudanese Muslims suffered from the disease.

Pressure for such cooperation comes from within the Muslim community, both within Sudan and without. Sudanese Muslims are increasingly vocal about their own experiences with HIV/AIDS, and fear a holocaust such as other African countries now suffer. Syria and other Arab states have broken their silence about the reality of AIDS within their own populations.

This new cooperation is also made possible by the fact that many church groups are giving priority to the work of reconciliation. Christians in Sudan are reaching out in new ways, crossing boundaries between Muslims and Christians as well as between Christians of different tribes, in order to heal wounds left by more than 20 years of unabated war.

The churches of Southern Sudan have created much of whatever fragile infrastructure exists there. Church-based clinics, schools and flood-relief teams provide services to all residents, regardless of their religion. Schools offer a secular curriculum, focusing on reading, writing, language, math and computer competency. In many areas, even devout Muslim parents are choosing these schools over madrassas (Islamic religious schools), because they believe the modern curriculum promises the best future for their children.

The church-run schools are staffed by both Muslims and Christians. Classes in religion are taught with the children receiving instruction in their own traditions: education not conversion is the object. The headmistress of one church-run school, a Muslim, recently married a Christian in the same village; neither converted, since inter-religious marriage has been legalised by the new government of Southern Sudan. Even when the question of conversion does occur, it does not tear apart the community that has formed for the sake of education. If a child expresses a desire to convert, the parents are informed, and their wishes for the child are respected by the school.

These Sudanese Muslims and Christians are not religiously apathetic, nor are they religious relativists most of them are strongly committed to their own traditions. Yet their very commitment is resulting in forms of cooperation that lower and even bring down walls of separation that the three monotheisms have often erected and reinforced. These educational initiatives are thus traditional and at the same time innovative, even revolutionary. In a place like Sudan, probably that strange combination is the only thing that might yet bring healing, build communities and create a future for a people who has seen far more war than peace.


* Ellen F. Davis, professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke University, is active in theological education in Southern Sudan. She has long been engaged in inter-religious study and dialogue. This article is part of a series on apostasy and proselytism distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News (CGNews), 9 October 2007,
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Death by religion
Message from the Prophet is clear: coexist
Proselytism and the world's religions
Keeping the faith through interfaith dialogue
The right to change one's religion
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Other articles in this series

Death by religion by Claude Salhani
Message from the Prophet is clear: coexist by Hisham al-Zoubeir
Proselytism and the world's religions by Halima Krausen
Keeping the faith through interfaith dialogue by Rev. David Gray
The right to change one's religion by Shaykh Abdallah Adhami