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‘Fr Courage’: cardinal hero of Khartoum
A CONVERSATION with Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako, Archbishop of Khartoum
| 16 January, 2005 |
A FEW weeks ago, the leader of Sudan’s Catholics paid a pastoral visit to Juba, the provincial capital in the south of the country.
|FATHER COURAGE: Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako, hero of the Sudan.
Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako described what he saw: “Juba used to be a model town in south Sudan. And now, after so many years of civil war, it is just a ruin. People – especially the older ones – talked about trying to rebuild it and return it to what it used to be. At one point, I almost burst into tears. There is no point trying to return Juba to what it was. There is nothing left. You have to start all over again.”
As Archbishop of Khartoum, Gabriel Zubeir Wako is no stranger to suffering. Indeed, like Juba, the hopes and dreams of this extraordinary personality have frequently been reduced to rubble. And yet, he and the Church he leads have not only survived but have a fervent faith in the future. Nor is this idle thinking; this is a man who holds on to his beliefs in the face of assassination attempts, threats of imprisonment, and countless attacks on his people and his Church.
The man nicknamed ‘Father Courage’, has led his Church through almost 25 years of persecution and poverty, a time in which at least two million have died in Sudan’s bloody civil war, now formally at an end. In these years, at least four million southerners – many of them Christians – have fled their towns and villages, making Sudan home to Africa’s – and possibly the world’s – largest internally displaced population.
All this before one takes into account the horrors of the Darfur crisis, in so many ways an eerie replay of the bloody conflict that threatened to obliterate the people of the south of the country.
And yet, in the interview I had with him in Rome, Cardinal Zubeir Wako clings to a hope that he is convinced will continue to sustain his people and his Church.
He said: “The Government of Sudan set themselves the target of getting Christianity out of the country by the year 2000. We have foiled their plan … so far.”
Later, I asked him to explain his comments. He said: “It seems that they do not realise the degree to which people, especially in the south of the country, have embraced their faith. Even now, the poverty and suffering does not make them lose their faith.”
A glimpse into the extraordinary story of Cardinal Zubeir Wako’s life helps reveal the secrets of his determination and faith.
As a little boy in the Bahr el Ghazal region of south Sudan, he was brought up to be very devout and the day of his first Holy Communion was of huge
significance. However, that evening as he celebrated with
family and friends after the Mass, his parish priest was gunned down – missionaries were an easy target for anti-colonial forces. It was a key moment in the little boy’s decision to join the seminary. He was ordained aged just 22 – requiring a special dispensation from Rome beforehand.
Within weeks of his ordination in 1963, all missionaries were expelled from Sudan after General Abboud’s military regime seized control. Barely a handful of priests were left behind in Fr Gabriel’s Diocese of Wau, the centre of the Bahr el Ghazal region.
The newly ordained priest’s reaction was typical of the resolve that was to be such a marked
characteristic of his ministry. When his parish priest was forced out, Fr Zubeir took over; when a shortage of priests meant the minor seminary was threatened with closure, the new priest
volunteered to run it; and when he found nobody else would do the job, he took responsibility for young people in the area, teaching his schools and acting as an
Even as a native Sudanese priest, he was on the hit list of militia forces in Wau. He recalled taking shelter under his bed when rampaging forces drew near. He later recalled: “The morning after the shoot-out was the our first chance to see who was still alive.”
If becoming Bishop of Wau in 1975 was a challenge for a man who had yet to reach his mid-30s, being appointed Archbishop of Khartoum was, arguably, a
poisoned chalice many would have refused.
Within two years, the Government of Sudan declared war on the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), beginning the deadly war in the south, where the
majority of Christians lived.
That the conflict was over religion became more explicit when, a few months later, the ailing Numeiry Government imposed Shari’ah in the north.
These blows to the Christian community in Sudan have determined Archbishop Zubeir’s course ever since.
Now, as then, he battles to protect the rights of Christians, preaching a gospel of forgiveness and lobbying government officials so that his faithful are recognised as exempt from Shari’ah.
Although the civil war officially came to an end 18 months ago, the situation remains so tense that one false move could cause the south to teeter over the brink into war.
Hence, Cardinal Zubeir
continues to preach a gospel of non-violence and forgiveness.
He has watched, largely
helpless, as swarms of people from the war-torn south have fled into Khartoum to escape the killing. But while they are safe from the bombs, they face another enemy – oppression.
To this day, Government
security forces are carrying out random demolition of homes in shanty-town areas on the pretext of ‘city planning’ polices.
Touring the shanty towns reveals that the demolition work of the security forces clearly
harbours a much darker motive.
Churches continue to be targeted; and it is the Christian areas of the shanty towns that often fare worst – they are the ones who are forced further out into the desert and whose lack of food and housing is most severe.
Cardinal Zubeir’s main hope for such communities remains the ‘Save the Saveable’ Schools project he founded.
Sustained opposition from the Government has completely failed in its efforts to weaken his resolve to keep the schools running; all this despite a lack of funding, which raised fears of his
imprisonment as teachers waited to be paid.
‘Save the Saveable’, which Cardinal Zubeir described as “the project dearest to my heart” is now on the road to recovery thanks to a huge campaign worldwide by Aid to the Church in Need.
The cardinal has reported that more children have joined the scheme, which has about 45,000 youngsters participating; school hours are longer and now children are once again receiving meals at the start of the day – a plan that was stopped because of the
However, the cardinal is quick to point out that the struggle for the Church’s survival is still far from won.
He says of the militant forces influential within Sudan’s regime: “To drive us out still remains the objective of our oppressors.”
Showing that his brand of Catholicism has nothing to do with idealistic na?veté, the Cardinal’s sceptical attitude towards the government defines his attitudes to the Darfur crisis.
He is convinced that the
genocide in Darfur is at the very least backed by the Government and is furious at the inaction of the international community.
He said: “The international community has got to be firm. There is nothing worse than the UN saying they are going to take action but then not carrying it out. They must do everything short of armed conflict.”
The cardinal says countries seeking a deal with President Bashir of Sudan over Darfur risk becoming victims of a publicity stunt by the government.
He believes the Bashir
government wants to whip up public outrage about Darfur to intimidate rivals and enemies and silence them in the face of Sudanese oppression.
He adds: “The government want to send out a message to the opposition groups in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan that the whole world is against them but they are not going to back down.”
Some people may be intimidated by Sudanese oppression. Cardinal Zubeir Wako is not one of them.
His no-nonsense approach to life bears testimony to his strength of character. But there is more to it than that. Beneath the tough
exterior is a remarkably sensitive side to his nature that gives added pathos to the sufferings he and his people have endured.
In his poems and letters for the diocese at Easter and Christmas, he lays bare the depth of his
frustrations and proceeds to reconcile them with his faith.
Perhaps, these open prayers to God for the benefit of the people go further than anything else to reveal the secret of the cardinal’s determination and faith; perhaps they come closest to explaining why the suffering that has reduced so much of his country to rubble has failed to crush his indomitable spirit. Perhaps, too, they come closest to explaining why he means so much to his people:
One Christmas poem reads:
“Your birth, Lord, reminds me
Of the many babies born today
Victims of human rejection and cruelty.
For them I pray:
May no one ever show them
Where they were born
Except to inspire them
With that love and care
They were denied.
May they learn from you
To bring joy and salvation
To their brothers and sisters
And so raise them out of their poverty.”
To help the work of Cardinal Wako in the Sudan please send your
donation to the Sydney office of
Aid to the Church in Need
PO Box 6245 Blacktown DC NSW 2148. Tel: (02) 9679-1929