In some countries, for some years, Christmas and the new year celebrations have been timid and morose because of the fear that prevails, all year round: violent terrorist or Jihadist attacks cause the death of thousands of people and forced a larger number into exile. The nativity celebration is, therefore, observed, in an atmosphere and mood of sadness, fear and nostalgia. Burkina Faso and Sudan are two countries that “live” this year’s Christmas and end of year in such unpleasant situations of fear and nostalgia. This piece uses the statements and observations of two witnesses who have one thing in common: their Christian faith. The words of a Sudanese Bishop and a Burkinabè Christian family man and father. Religion is at the centre of the conflicts in one way or another along with the struggle over natural resources. South Soudan has a Christian majority and Sudan (the other Sudan) is Islamic in majority.
The Sudan Chapter
What is referred to as the Second Sudanese Civil War is a conflict between the Central Sudanese Government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army that lasted from 1983 to 2005. It originated in southern Sudan and spread to the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile. It lasted for 22 years and resulted in the independence of South Sudan six years after the war ended. Over ninety per cent of the Sudanese were Muslims and 5.4 per cent were Christians, before the split into Sudan and South Sudan. A divide between the Arab-influenced north and the “African” south is also cited as one of the reasons.
It will not be an exaggeration to say that violence and poverty are people’s daily lot in Sudan and South Sudan, since each nation is affected by the war. Bishop Macram Max Gassis, who was forced into exile in 1990, shared, “the people of God in the two countries are living without love and peace and as a result, they continue to rely on others for support”. In his prayer on 17 December 2021, the Bishop added, “People with guns bring suffering and death, Jesus brings peace and life”. Bishop Macram stressed the contrast between the message and mission of Jesus Christ on the one hand and the tragedy that comes with war on the other hand. The bishop further explains in a clear and heart-wrenching statement that what Jesus brought to mankind has not reached Sudan, or the Sudanese seem to have lost or forgotten the message of Jesus. The war in Sudan makes it impossible for people to have access to potable water, food, health care and shelter, some basic things that sustain life. The bishop refers to the exiled as “beggars in many other countries”. One cannot agree more with him when we reflect over what we experience and observe in a refugee camp. The terms of the bishop can be extended to the various forms of harassment that refugees undergo. His prayer ended with an emotional plea to God to help humanity, and Sudan precisely, to arrive at a situation where peace and love are not empty words, where gunshots are not heard and oppression is stamped out. This war has reached a proportion which has never been experienced since World War II: two million people died and four million were displaced.
The Burkinabè Scene
This country, which was once very peaceful and hosted innumerable international summits because of its security and serenity, has turned into a terrain of brutality, carnage and terror of an unimaginable dimension, since 2016. No one knows exactly who is behind such a lugubrious new daily reality for the Burkinabè. Christmas 2021 will remain engraved in the memory of Christians and non-Christians, people who used to live in harmony. Some 62.7 per cent adhere to Islam and 21.7 per cent are Christians in Burkina Faso. The Jihadist attacks target churches and Christians, armed forces and civilians who are collateral damage. As a result, certain pastors and priests teach basic security measures to their congregations like “sitting in such a way that one always sees the entrance and who enters the church; one must sit on a spot near an exispoint, etc.”.
Barthélemy reminisces with nostalgia what and how Christmas used to be in Burkina, in the “peaceful years” when Christians and Muslims would celebrate, although the festivity is a Christian one. The essence of his remarks is captured in the following words, when he spoke to the Catholic foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN): “I am a Catholic and father of seven; I was forced to flee to Ouagadougou when my village was attacked by Jihadists, in the north of the country. Traditionally in Burkina, Christmas is an occasion for fervent prayers, celebration and merry making. After the morning mass where we sing and praise the Lord, delicacies like rice and others are cooked and we share food with our neighbors, regardless of their religion. Parents and children wear their best clothing. It was very beautiful”. In fact, one million people have been displaced and more than 500 were killed in those attacks in Burkina. Some victims had their throats slit and most of the attacks target churches. Refugees and reliance on charity are some of the commonalities between the crisis in Burkina and that of Sudan. Barthélemy adds that their church was surrounded by fully armed insurgents who were shooting at the people and killed the priest. They then gathered everything and set it ablaze. Unfortunately, the story of this family is not unique.
The prayers and statements of the Sudanese bishop and the reflections and words of the Burkinabè citizen intersect considerably: sadness, fear, abject poverty, the loss of loved ones and looming death have replaced the joy, sanctity and profound prayers that used to mark Christmas.
Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of University of Cape Coast, Ghana.