The Privilege and Burden of Serving in Sudan

Interview With Bishop Edward Hiiboro

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YAMBIO, Sudan, JUNE 6, 2010 ( Being the shepherd of a Sudanese flock is both a privilege and a burden, says the bishop of the Tombura-Yambio Diocese, who himself once lived as a refugee.

The youngest bishop of the Catholic Church in Sudan, Bishop Edward Hiiboro heads a very big but materially poor diocese: Tombura-Yambio, in the Southern Sudan.

According to the last census they are nearly 2 million people living in that region, and 900,000 of the people are Catholics. It is an old diocese: In 2011 they will be celebrating 100 years of Christianity.

That region is isolated from many major towns and cities of Sudan. The communication is very poor, which contributes to the backwardness of the place, and they are confronted with major issues: the construction and reconstruction of these places.

The country of Sudan in general, the largest on the African continent, has been unfortunately plagued by a long civil war stemming from racial and cultural inequality.

In this interview given to the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, the bishop speaks about his experience working and living in the refugee camps, his reasons for hope, and his goals for the people of his diocese.

Q: You yourself, were you born also in the south of Sudan?

Bishop Hiiboro: Yes I was born in south Sudan. As soon as I was born, two months later, there was a raid on my village and my mom was killed, and I was nourished by my grandmother who ran away from that war to the Republic of Congo.

I stayed there for nine years. I grew up in the refugee camp. I came back to Sudan in 1972 after the peace agreement of Addis Ababa, where I continued my studies which was interrupted again by the war of 1983. We ran over to Khartoum where I finish my seminary.

So I’m through and through a refugee, a displaced person and I know what it means to go out of our own country or go out of my country without nothing at our disposal; so when these people come back home, I really see the difficulty and I know the situation they are in.

Q: And how are you able to keep your faith all the way along this difficult path?

Bishop Hiiboro: Well I must be grateful to my grandmother. She was raised a Catholic.

When I was small she taught me how to pray. It has become a habit for me now.

She always woke me up and would say: «Have you prayed?» So before I go to bed we prayed. When I wake up in the morning she would say: «Now you have to pray. You have to thank God that you we are alive.»

And I have learned and throughout my life to see Christ in every situation. So it has become also my motto as a bishop now.

Q: And that is? What is the motto?

Bishop Hiiboro: ‘Christ is fully risen’. Christ in all his suffering and being nailed on the cross, never remained on it. Nor did he remain in the tomb.

He woke up, he got up, he rose; so behind every cross there is life. Christ is there, behind, and under the tomb and above it, there is life. So I know that our difficulties in Sudan, our problems in the Diocese of Tombura-Yambio will not end, but we will be resurrected.

We will come to life, and I see life at the end and that is my hope and I believe in that.

Q: Is it a big change for you because so far you have been an academic and suddenly you have become a bishop?

Bishop Hiiboro: It is indeed. My appointment as a bishop, I took it with mixed feelings because I had wanted to excel in the academic field. I like reading and writing and I just published my latest book: «Human Rights, The Church in Post-war Sudan.»

I had wanted to go deeper into writing and now shifting into this possibility of being a bishop of a large and difficult diocese confronts my plans and my efforts to realize the kind of diocese that it should be. But I know that it is God who has called me to do this job, and it is his work. It is his project and I’m sure he will not leave me alone. He will be with me. He will take care of me, and he has given me wonderful people, people who believe in God. And I am going to work with them, and they have assured me right from the moment of my ordination the amount of joy I could see and the kind of reception I got so I’m empowered by that and I will not be alone to shoulder the responsibility of this diocese.

Q: At your ordination you’ve already said yourself, it’s a burden and a privilege. What is the burden you’re taken upon yourself?

Bishop Hiiboro: The burden itself is the cross of the people; to work with the people under difficult situations they are living, the life, the reality of life which my people are experiencing, the possibility to construct peace among themselves, the possibility to have a conducive life with full human dignity, the possibility to realize their human rights and to be free children of God.

I know it is not easy; it is not an easy road. I know things are difficult. I can see it. I can feel it.

To me that is a burden, and above all, to make the peace in that country, in my area durable, but it’s a privilege because I’m a priest. I’m a Catholic. I’m a Christian.

Q: Why is it a privilege in such a situation?

Bishop Hiiboro: It’s a privilege because I’m able to realize the project of God. It’s a privilege to speak on behalf of God.

It’s a privilege to bring the Good News of salvation to the people who need it most.

Q: Are they open for this lesson of salvation?

Bishop Hiiboro: Yes, what is interesting about my diocese is that it was early on an aristocratic community. The people had their kings and they listened to their kings.

When Christians came 97 years ago, Christianity replaced this kind of tendency to be allied with kings, and the people have embraced Christianity. You could not find one out of five people who do not mention the name of God.

So the people, you can see that they love their God. They are in a relationship with their God. Even I could see it in my own consecration the amount of joy that I could see in the people.

And as I tour the parishes I could see the amount of joy they have for me, the reception was great, and I also see in the presence of the Holy Eucharist, the frequency of visit to the sacraments and their style of living so it encourages me that they are open to the Good News of God and gives me a lot of encouragement.

Q: Is there a lot of work for you to do to build a lasting peace?

Bishop Hiiboro: It is true that there is a lot of work for me to do, but I see it in this way: The best thing first I have to do is to deepen the evangelization process of my people.

They have to know God. They have to be at home with him. They have to experience him and that becomes the base for constructing a peace that would last.

I have, all along, been talking and insisting to the people to put Christ as the center, and the foundation of what they do and because only if we are converted to him who is the author of peace, then we can be able to build peace.

Q: What challenges are there?

Bishop Hiiboro: People have been traumatized for many years.

They have no experience of peace. The only way they know to get anything is through violence and they have to push their way out.

So to bring the culture of peace needs a gradual process. I have to go slowly. I’m doing a research in finding out why somehow we still have difficulties in building peace.

You know, because of the war many people ran out as refugees to different countries, and they are all coming in with different mentalities. We have many who have moved as IDP (Internal Displaced People) to other areas of the country; they all come in with different mentalities, and we have people who never left during the war times; these people too have a different approach.

Now putting all these people together, the integration process is not easy; it’s very difficult. But
we have to go and move according to their pace of each of these groups and telling them that we have a common goal.

We have to strike a balance of building the right peace among ourselves by accepting each and every one of us.

Q: Can you tell a bit of your own situation? Have you also worked with the displaced?

Bishop Hiiboro: Yes, right when I was a student in Khartouom before my ordination and also when I was just ordained, I worked with the displaced people in Khartoum. I was sent to one of the displaced camps called Jebel Aulia in the Northern part of the city of Khartoum by the archbishop.

We were the first group of people to be taken to the displaced camp, and life was very hard. It was a desert. And I could see mothers digging a hole in the ground to keep their children warm. It was winter. It was very cold. There was not much to eat.

Life was hard and it was at that moment that we were losing children. People were abducting children. They come and make porridge and their children are abducted. We then had to go on and report the missing children.

After a year I was taken to the Republic of Central Africa to be a rector of a minor seminary in a refugee camp. I stayed there for seven years, and I could see how difficult it was for people to live outside their land, and life was hard, and I was taking good care of the seminarians in the camp. We had to make made shift patches for them to stay in and we had to grow our own food to feed these young people and the same for all the people in these area. So I have experienced the life of refugees as well as the life of displaced people.

Q: What will be your appeal?

Bishop Hiiboro: My appeals are three: I’m asking for friendship. I would like you to visit our diocese, and I want volunteers. I need people to come in and join hands with us. Come and visit us, and those who can be able to stay over and work with us, that would be great.

The second appeal is: I would like you to choose some project that are geared towards emergencies, self-reliance and self-sufficiency so that people are able to take care of themselves. Those challenges are many: the health, education and social services.

The third appeal I like is the continuation of consolidating the peace in the country. It is not an easy project. It is difficult. It is delicate, and can be abrogated anytime. We are doing our part, but we need the efforts of many of our friends who have stood with us during the time of war and during the time of discordance so that again this peace is secured and should not be abrogated, so it has to be consolidated.

So I thank you so much, and I know that my invitation for you to come and my request for you to pick with us some projects that can lead to self reliance and self-sufficiency. And you continuing the process of consolidating the peace in the country will be accepted. So I thank you so much for the main support you have given us in the past. You have kept us alive.

God, I would say, at the end, is weeping in Sudan, but we want him to laugh in Sudan.

* * *

This interview was conducted by Marie-Pauline Meyer for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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