As Founder Is Canonized, Comboni Missionaries Continue Work in Sudan

SOUTHERN SUDAN — In the two-decades-long civil war that has devastated Sudan, one group that has been in the midst of serving and healing the people are the Comboni Missionaries.

But they are not the new kids on the block. Their founder, Blessed Daniele Comboni, traveled from his native Italy to Africa in 1857 and later became the first bishop of Sudan. At a time when Europeans and Arabs were still exploiting Africans through the slave trade, Comboni's vision was to “save Africa with Africans.”

Pope John Paul II was scheduled to canonize Blessed Daniele Comboni at the Vatican on Oct. 5. The Comboni Missionaries are so much a part of Sudan that the Sudanese consider Comboni to be one of their own, not a European.

“Comboni is their bishop,” said a priest who did not want to be identified. “They feel he is their saint and that the Sudanese Church is capable of producing holiness. It is a big celebration.”

But the celebration comes in the midst of continuing hardships. The civil war that began in 1982 pits Arab Muslims living in the North of Sudan against black Africans in the South, where many Christians reside. Two million people have perished and more than 4 million have been displaced. Countless numbers of children have been kidnapped, with many forced into fighting or slavery. Rape has not been uncommon.

Some observers, in fact, warn that if militant Islam triumphs over the Christian and animist peoples of Southern Sudan, it will spread quickly through the rest of the continent.

As it is, life is difficult for Christians living under radical, Islamic rule in the northeast African country.

“They try to make life unbearable for us,” said Comboni Father Giovanni Antonini, who spent 30 years in Sudan and is now living in Rome. “I was the provincial in Northern Sudan. Whenever I used to leave Khartoum, I had to inform the police. They made me sign six documents. Then they gave me permission, but not always.”

He said the last church to be built in Sudan was in 1969, and only after 13 years of begging.

“Christians are naturally discriminated against,” said another priest, who, like the other priest interviewed for this article, wished to remain anonymous. “If you want to get ahead, you become Muslim. And people do it. The government is very shrewd. First, they created a program where all children had to learn Arabic. Now, they must learn about Islam.”

Worldwide Mission

About 4,000 Comboni priests, religious brothers and sisters and lay missionaries work in 41 countries on five continents. They are in 16 African countries, including Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda, another conflict-ridden country where 13 Combonis have lost their lives in recent years.

There are nearly 100 Comboni missionaries in Sudan. They had been expelled from the country in the 1960s but were eventually recalled to run Comboni College in Khartoum — a high school that is considered one of the best in the nation.

“Many important people in the country studied there,” said Father Justo Lacunza, president of the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Rome. “Interestingly enough, the majority of students are Muslim.”

In the North, the Combonis focus on helping the massive numbers of displaced people. They operate multipurpose centers that offer adult education, family counseling and courses to help Southerners adapt to urban life.

In the South, they live in areas not under government control and operate schools and health care centers. Because so many people are displaced even within the South, the Combonis try to help them with farming.

In almost all Comboni missionary centers, the majority of staff are Africans. That would be in line with the vision of Blessed Daniele Comboni.

“He had the idea of establishing centers of evangelization all around Africa,” Father Antonini said, “with schools, universities and hospitals so that Africans could eventually take over.”

But slavery is still a reality on the continent. In the Sudanese conflict, tribal militias were established in the 1980s to fight against guerrillas in the South.

“The government asked them to do their dirty work, but they never got paid,” Father Antonini said. “So they pay themselves with slaves: boys and girls.” Sometimes these children are sold to other Arab nations.

In Northern Sudan, the Catholic Church quietly deals with the issue. Among other things, it tries to reunite families.


It is hoped current negotiations between the government and Southern rebels will lead to a peace agreement, but if it doesn't, a U.S. law will “kick in,” said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House in Washington, D.C.

The Sudan Peace Act, passed in 1999, enables the U.S. president to sanction the party acting in bad faith against peace negotiations. In this case, according to Shea, it could mean the United States would begin giving nonmilitary support to forces in the South.

But one priest working in Sudan said pessimistically: “They keep meeting and talking about progress, and the years pass.”

“There is some outside pressure on the government to come to terms with the South, but the pressure is not strong enough,” he said.

He believes this pressure must come from the United States and Europe.

“The United States is too interested in its own business,” he said. “The Sudanese government handed over some wanted terrorists, so the United States took pressure off of them.”

He believes it was because of this that the United Nations recently took away a special observer on human rights from Sudan.

Shea disagrees, arguing it was due to successful lobbying by Khartoum.

Nevertheless, the Comboni missionaries hope the canonization of their founder will focus the world's attention on the region and its sufferings.

As well, Father Antonini believes Sudan will play an important role in the history of Catholicism and Islam in Africa.

“The Sudanese Christians are different from Christians in other Arab countries,” he said. “They are aware of their rights and dignity. They have pride in themselves and want to be treated fairly.”

Within the Comboni schools in Sudan there are Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus. “I never had a problem with their living and studying together,” Father Antonini said. “We taught respect for the person because we see the image of Christ in everyone. Our activities are always centered on the value of every single human being.”

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is based in Rome.