Reaching the Nations

South Sudan

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Geography

Area: 619,725 square km.  Landlocked in Central Africa, South Sudan borders Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic.  Floodplains, swamps, and pastureland along the Nile River and its tributaries constitute most the terrain and are subject to tropical climate.  Wildlife flourishes in South Sudan in the swamps and floodplains which are generally sparsely populated.  Flooding, drought, and wildfires are natural hazards.  Environmental issues include pollution and improper disposal of waste.  South Sudan is divided into three administrative states.  The status of Abyei State as to pertaining to Sudan or South Sudan remains undetermined.

Population: 8 million[1] (2011) [note: some estimates are as high as 13 million]      

Annual Growth Rate: 4.32% (average growth rate from 1993 to 2008)    

Fertility Rate: N/A [Sudan - 4.84 children born per woman (2011)]   

Life Expectancy: N/A [Sudan - 54.18 male, 56.71 female (2011)]

Peoples

Dinka: 12.5%

other: 87.5%

With hundreds of ethnic groups, the South Sudanese population exhibits extreme ethnic diversity, with the largest ethnic group comprising only 12.5% of the national population.  Ethnic groups in the country pertain either to Nilotic, Sudanese, or Semitic-Hamitic ethnic families.  Pertaining to the Nilotic group, the Dinka are the largest ethnic group and are estimated to number over one million.  Most ethnic groups rely on subsistence agriculture and reside in rural areas.  Other major ethnic groups include the Shilluk, Acholi, and Nuer (Nilotic) and the Azande, Bor, and Jo Luo (Sudanese).[2] 

Languages: Dinka dialects (17%), Nuer (9%), Bari (5%), Zande (4%), Shilluk (2%), Otuho (2%), Jur Modo (1%), Toposa (1%), other or unknown (58%).  Arabic and English are the official languages.  Only Dinka has over one million speakers (1.35 million).   

Literacy: N/A (61.1% for Sudan [2003])

History

Most of the tribes which populated South Sudan settled the region a millennium ago and maintained self-rule until the late nineteenth century.  Egypt conquered Sudan during the nineteenth century but only maintained a few outposts in the south during this period.  Slave raiders would at times venture into the south and carry away indigenous peoples as slaves in the north.  The United Kingdom annexed Sudan in the late nineteenth century but had little involvement in the south and restricted its administration primarily to northern areas and Khartoum.  Sudan achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1956 but civil war enveloped the country between the Muslim north and animist and Christian south for nearly the entire remainder of the twentieth century due to ethno-religious differences, repression of non-Arab and non-Muslim peoples, and debate over the representation of Islam in government.  Violence was most severe in the south, where an estimated two million perished and four million were displaced between 1983 and 2005.  In 2002, Sudan granted South Sudan the right to self-determination and in 2005 the north and south signed a peace treaty ending the civil war.  In January 2011, an independence referendum was held for South Sudan in which 98.83% of South Sudanese voters opted for independence from the north, resulting in the formation of an independent nation named the Republic of South Sudan in July 2011.  The political status of the border state Abyei remains undetermined.[3]

Culture 

Tribalism, war, and violence have dominated local culture for the past half century as a result of one of the longest civil wars in African history.  The result of the civil war was extremely devastating on South Sudanese populations  as LDS senior missionary couples reported in 2008 that in some areas most adults perished in the war and there were none of the rising generation that knew how to grow traditional crops and engage in sustenance agriculture.   

Economy

GDP per capita: $2,200 (2010) [4.64% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.531

Corruption Index: 1.6 [statistics are for Sudan proper]

The economy is largely undeveloped and most the labor force is employed in subsistence farming and agriculture.  Petroleum reserves and arable farmland are the primary natural resources and have been poorly utilizes and exploited.  War, poverty, political instability, corruption, and landlocked location have limited economic development and international trade.

Corruption is perceived as widespread and present in all areas of society. 

Faiths

Christian (usually incorporated with indigenous beliefs): 50%

indigenous religions and other: 50%

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Catholic  2,000,000 (includes Sudan proper)

Seventh Day Adventists  8,062  20

Jehovah's Witnesses  1,826  65 (includes Sudan proper)

Latter-day Saints  less than 100  1+

Religion

The religious demographics of the South Sudanese population have not been well studied due to war and political instability lasting for decades, but many believe that Christians account for approximately half the population.  Christianity has rapidly spread in South Sudan since early 1990.  Most Christians incorporate indigenous beliefs and practices into their worship.  Followers of indigenous religious beliefs account for most of the remaining half of the population whereas Muslims appear to constitute a small minority.

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The constitution protects religious freedom which is upheld by the government.  There have been no recent reports of societal abuse of religious freedom.  There are no laws punishing potential violations of religious freedom by private actors.  There are no proselytizing restrictions and no penalties for defaming religion or apostasy.[4]    

Largest Cities

Urban: N/A (Sudan proper: 40%)

Juba, Wau, Malakal, Uwayl.

Cities listed in bold have no LDS congregations.

One of the four largest cities has an LDS congregation.  9% of the national population resides in the four most populous cities.

LDS History

The first Sudanese Latter-day Saints joined the Church in Europe, the United States, and Australia but no LDS missionary activity in South Sudan occurred until the late 2000s.  In late 2007 and early 2008, reports began to circulate among members and missionaries in Uganda of large numbers of self-identified Latter-day Saints perhaps numbering in the hundreds who were unofficially meeting in the name of the Church.  To investigate these reports and under the direction of the Africa Southeast Area Presidency, Uganda Kampala Mission President Christensen became the first LDS authority to visit South Sudan in July 2008.  President Christensen traveled to a small town in eastern South Sudan named Nyamlel where approximately 2,500 individuals assembled to learn more about the Church.  Due to flooding in the region prior to the visit by President Christensen, many of those interested in the Church were unable to travel to the meeting from nearby villages.  At the time, there were a reported six or seven congregations of self-identified Latter-day Saints in the Nyamlel area who likely initially heard about the Church from Sudanese converts baptized abroad.  President Christensen informed the assembled congregation during his visit that the Church would not be immediately established in South Sudan but that the congregation was to prepare and learn more about the Church in order to be baptized and for official congregations to be organized.  Several local leaders were provided with LDS literature and taught to teach others in the area.  South Sudan was assigned to the Uganda Kampala Mission in late 2008 or early 2009.  The registration of the LDS Church in South Sudan was approved by the Church in the spring of 2009.  Several members from neighboring East African nations like Kenya were residing in Juba in 2008 and by November 2009 the first LDS congregation was organized in Juba.  Several investigators in Juba learned about the Church through a Canadian member who shared the Gospel with them in Khartoum over a decade before and many were baptized in 2009 and 2010.  In 2010, full-time missionaries reported that an additional group of members operated in Akobo.  As of early 2011, missionary work has not officially begun in South Sudan as the Church has only authorized mission leaders to conduct humanitarian work.  It is anticipated that full-time, proselytizing LDS missionaries will be assigned sometime shortly following independence of South Sudan in July 2011.

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: ~100 (2010)

The Church has not released membership statistics for South Sudan as of early 2011.  Total LDS membership is estimated at approximately 100. In 2010, approximately one in 80,000 was LDS.

Congregational Growth

Wards: 0 Branches: 1 Groups: 2+?

One independent branch operates in Juba under the Uganda Kampala Mission.  LDS groups operate in several cities such as Akobo and Nyamlel but it is unclear whether these congregations are officially organized congregations under the Uganda Kampala Mission or self-established, unofficial groups of prospective Latter-day Saints.   

Activity and Retention

Active membership in early 2011 was estimated to range between 50 and 75, or 50-75% of total church membership. 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: English, Arabic

All LDS scriptures and most church materials are available in Arabic.

Meetinghouses

The Juba Branch appears to meet in a rented space whereas other groups meet outdoors or in members' homes.

Health and Safety

Safety is a major concern which has led the Church to move very cautiously into South Sudan despite abundant opportunities for rapid membership and congregational growth.  One of the members in the Akobo Group was killed in a nighttime attack in late 2009 but did not appear to be targeted because of their religion.  Those meeting in the Church's name in the Nyamlel area take care of hundreds of freed child slaves from the Darfur region.  Most in South Sudan do not have access to clean water.  HIV/AIDS has infected 1.4% of the population.  Tropical diseases are common and living standards are very low.

Humanitarian and Development Work

LDS senior missionary couples began planning humanitarian and development projects in late 2008.  In 2009, bore holes for ten wells were drilled in South Sudan, wheelchairs were donated, and school supplies for orphaned children in the areas by Nyamlel were distributed.  The Church has also provided emergency relief for the victims of religious violence in Akobo and Chikol.[5]

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

Religious Freedom

The LDS Church benefits from widespread religious freedom in South Sudan as there are no proselytism restrictions and Latter-day Saints and other Christians may worship and assemble freely.  There are no restrictions on foreign missionaries operating in the country, but safety concerns may prompt LDS area and mission leaders to only assigned African missionaries to South Sudan until greater political stability is established.  The Church faced difficulties performing humanitarian and development work in South Sudan in the late 2000s due to international sanctions enforced on Sudan for human rights violations.  No LDS missionaries were assigned and no official proselytism occurred in South Sudan prior to independence due to the semi-official political status of the country.

Cultural Issues

Poverty, tribalism, and war have been the predominant influences on South Sudanese society for decades, creating serious economic challenges for locals to obtain an education and stable employment.  Indigenous beliefs are widespread and LDS teaching and proselytism approaches will need to adapt to the understanding and religious background of non-Christian animists and syncretic Christian-animists.  The Church may face challenges with prospective converts retaining local religious customs and practices following their baptism in the LDS Church which could lead to some doctrinal integrity issues.  The degree of member-missionary work exhibited by Sudanese in sharing LDS teachings with friends and family and high rates of receptivity to the LDS Church are major cultural advantages which favor long-term, self-sustaining growth.  Literacy rates are unknown for South Sudan but appear to be low and present additional challenges for training illiterate or inadequately literate members for local leadership and administration.  Opportunities for humanitarian and development work are immense and in many areas take precedence over proselytism to meet basic humanitarian needs.

National Outreach

With no formal missionary presence, the LDS Church in South Sudan operates one official congregation in Juba which potentially could reach five percent of the national population if missionary activity occurred.  In 2010, full-time LDS missionaries were not assigned to the Juba Branch and only visited periodically to provide training, perform baptismal interviews and baptisms, and evaluate conditions in preparation for the establishment of a permanent missionary presence.  Groups of self-identified Latter-day Saints in Akobo and Nyamlel offer opportunities to expand national outreach outside of Juba upon the decision by LDS leaders to begin proselytism, assign full-time missionaries, and prepare and baptize investigators in these locations.  LDS humanitarian activities and the operation of unofficial LDS congregations may increase the percentage potentially reached by the Church to ten percent.

Delays in opening South Sudan to formal proselytism are varied and complex and include the semi-official political status of the country until independence in 2011, low standards of living, political instability, religious violence in northern border areas, isolation from mission headquarters in Uganda, and limited mission resources dedicated to the region.  A formal LDS missionary presence will likely be established following official independence of South Sudan in July 2011 as full-time missionaries serving in the Uganda Kampala Mission reported in 2010 that the mission president intended on opening the country to missionary work as soon as possible.  The lack of large cities and the majority of the Sudanese population residing in rural locations will present major challenges for LDS missionary paradigms that traditionally utilize full-time missionaries to effectively expand outreach over remote, large expanses of terrain that are sparsely populated.  Continued emphasis on local members to perform missionary activity will most likely ensure growth and outreach that is widespread and minimally-reliant on full-time missionary resources.

Sudanese populations in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia provide opportunities for Sudanese to learn about the Church and spur leadership and missionary resources that can be later allocated to South Sudan.  At present outreach to Sudanese has been sporadic and uncoordinated, but efforts to systematically reach Sudanese worldwide may provide for accelerated growth and stability for the LDS Church in South Sudan over the long run. 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

As of early 2011, member activity and convert retention rates were high as the few recent converts who have joined the Church developed habitual church attendance prior to baptism and several known foreign Latter-day Saints attended church meetings in Juba.  The dedication and devotion of many prospective Latter-day Saints is impressive as it has endured for years despite no official church establishment and provides a fair outlook for future member activity and convert retention rates due to extended preparation of investigators for baptism and undertaking church responsibilities.  Some member activity challenges likely exist due to some Latter-day Saints being unaware of an LDS presence in Juba or residing in areas with no nearby congregations.  Member activity and convert retention challenges have occurred among LDS Sudanese populations in the United States as a Nuer-speaking branch once operated in Omaha, Nebraska in the mid-2000s but was discontinued due to low member activity rates and several members and leaders leaving the Church.   

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Reports from senior missionary couples visiting South Sudan have reported no significant ethnic integration issues among the local population although ethnic conflict has been intense in the past with the Arab north.  Tribalism may present some ethnic integration issues but these will likely be minimal in the coming years as most ethnic groups are geographically separated.

Language Issues

LDS services in the Juba Branch are conducted in English and initial proselytizing efforts will likely occur in English for many years as at present there are no LDS materials in local languages.  Dinka and Nuer are likely candidates for prospective translations of LDS materials due to their widespread use in South Sudan and use among local investigators and members. 

Missionary Service

No Sudanese Latter-day Saints appear to have a served a full-time mission from South Sudan, but Sudanese members in other countries appear to have served missions in recent years.  Seminary and institute have yet to be established in South Sudan and provide an effective approach to retain converts, strengthen member testimonies and understanding of the gospel, and provide missionary preparation. 

Leadership

All local leaders appear to be native Sudanese Latter-day Saints or African members from neighboring nations.  There is no official LDS leadership in unofficially organized congregations.  The LDS Church tends to shy away from baptizing entire congregations because conversion is seen as an individual process that requires personal commitment to the living of the teachings of the gospel.  The seeds of apostasy can also be subtly sown when converts join the Church in mass as some previous leaders may desire to retain leadership authority or persuade others to disobey LDS teachings based upon personal opinion.  Due to some previous problems retaining converts that join the Church collectively, the Church prefers to develop local leadership and slowly and steadily add to its numbers, which has occurred since late 2010 in Burundi and is also underway in South Sudan.  Once local membership and leadership can better address the needs and responsibilities of larger numbers of converts and a higher degree of self-sufficiency, greater flexibility is exhibited in permitting the baptism of larger groups of people. 

Temple

South Sudan is assigned to the Johannesburg South Africa Temple district.  Due to the recent establishment of the Church in South Sudan, there have been no reported organized temple visits.  Travel to the temple is extremely difficult and costly rendering temple attendance for most a nearly insurmountable task.  Prospects for a small temple in Nairobi, Kenya appear forthcoming over the medium or long term and would reduce travel demands and costs for temple-going members. 

Comparative Growth

South Sudan is among countries most recently reached by the LDS Church and is one of only two African nations with independent LDS branches without full-time missionaries assigned (the other being Djibouti).  The scope of preliminary LDS activity and number of self-identified Latter-day Saints is comparable to Nigeria and Ghana in the 1970s prior to an official LDS establishment in both countries.  Receptivity to the LDS Church by the general population is among the highest in Africa.  South Sudan is one of several African nations with groups of self-identified Latter-day Saints awaiting an official LDS establishment in their cities and villages with other countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Burundi, and Ethiopia.

Other missionary-oriented Christian groups have experienced rapid growth over the past two decades and operate in South Sudan despite past political uncertainty of the destined fate of the south and the prevalence of indigenous religious beliefs and practices.  The Seventh Day Adventist Church reported 8,062 members meeting in 20 churches in 2010.  The number of Adventist churches nearly doubled and the number of members tripled between 1999 and 2009.  Mainly mainstream Protestant denominations have reported rapid membership growth since the 1990s.  

Future Prospects

A highly receptive population with several groups of prospective Latter-day Saints awaiting baptizing, the independence of South Sudan in 2011, preparation and mobilization of LDS missionary manpower in the Uganda Kampala Mission to enter the country, humanitarian and development work occurring since 2009, and the organization of the first branch in Juba in late 2009 generate a favorable outlook for future LDS Church growth in the coming years.  The challenges and opportunities the Church faces in South Sudan are among the most exciting and daunting in the world at present, but a lack of LDS materials in local languages and the threat of increasing political instability following independence may create long-term challenges for maintaining a widespread LDS presence.  Addressing humanitarian concerns may take precedence in many areas before proselytism occurs.


[1]  "Background Note: Sudan," Bureau of African Affairs, 8 April 2011.  http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5424.htm

[2]  "Background Note: Sudan," Bureau of African Affairs, 8 April 2011.  http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5424.htm

[3]  "Background Note: Sudan," Bureau of African Affairs, 8 April 2011.  http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5424.htm

[4]  "Sudan," International Religious Freedom Report 2010, 17 November 2010.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/148722.htm

[5]  "Projects - Sudan," Humanitarian Activities Worldwide, retrieved 3 May 2011.  http://www.providentliving.org/project/0,13501,4607-1-2008-123,00.html