Faith in dark times
Sudan war shapes Crawford County Catholic priest
October 16, 2013
Father Bashir Abdelsamad is a native of the Nuba Mountain region of Sudan. He was forced to flee at the beginning of the country’s second civil war in the early 1980s. He now serves as vicar of five Iowa churches in Vail, Denison, Dow City, Charter Oak and Ute.
The gunshots rang out, one by one, across the stark landscape of one of Sudan's remote bush regions.
Father Abdelsamad Bashir knew of such nameless places, etched in stories of military executions.
One by one, the pastor watched nine men fall.
"My mind was not here completely. I was almost not here in this world. I was somewhere ...," he paused. "I never felt fear. I was already in another place."
A COUNTRY IN CONFLICT
"I knew that I was going to die, going to be arrested, so I decided to do it," said Bashir of his indiscriminate decision to offer aid to displaced Sudanese in the early 1980s. "I had to do it. There was no other way - people were dying."
A pastor in his native village of Kadugli, located in the Nuba Mountains region, Bashir watched the fragile peace between the predominantly Arab Muslim north and the African Christian south splinter as the blurred battle lines crept closer to the mountain range that physically divided Sudan. His country stood on the brink of a second civil war that would last for more than two decades.
"When war started, usually when war starts, people start being displaced," Bashir explained. "When the people came, I tried to organize them and support them with material needs and medicine."
For these efforts, Bashir was accused by government officials of supporting the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a rebel movement split between factions fighting for a unified Sudan and those fighting for an independent south. After three arrests and a narrowly escaped execution, he fled, first working with displaced civilians in parts of his own country before traveling to Nairobi, Kenya, and eventually the United States where he currently serves as vicar of five Iowa churches in Vail, Denison, Dow City, Charter Oak and Ute.
Though a peace agreement was signed in Sudan in 2005, fighting broke out again in 2012.
"The war now in Nuba Mountains is a kind of ethnic cleansing," Bashir said. "From that time until now, there has been no sign of stopping of the war."
A MAN OF FAITH
Raised Muslim, Bashir converted to Christianity while in high school, a change he said had been a long time coming.
"When I was in primary (elementary) school, the teacher was teaching us the Quran. Maybe I was a bit stubborn, I ask questions a lot," he said with a quick laugh. "One day I asked, 'Maulana (religious teacher), why did God create Christians and allow Muslims to kill them?' "
The teacher was angry, and Bashir was punished. His curiosity piqued, the questions would tug at the edge of the subconscious, but it would be years before he pursued answers.
"During the night came to me, like a dream - a vision or dream, I don't know, I was not actually sleeping - but appeared to me Christ with two books, the Bible and the Quran," Bashir recalled, his face growing pensive. "He asked me to choose the right book. As soon as I took the Bible, he disappeared."
Bashir continued his studies, "no longer interested in Islam." The season of final exams was approaching, and Bashir and his fellow students were taken to see a church for the first time. Bashir wandered in search of a Bible.
"I went to see the pastor to give me the book to see. When he gave me the book, my body started shaking," he said. "The pastor was frightened. He was afraid the government could accuse him of converting me."
After completing his exams, he joined the Camboni school.
"I told the priest I wanted to know everything in the Bible," Bashir said with a laugh. In his third year of study, he was baptized, and after his fourth year, he was confirmed. He continued on to seminary.
- AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY -
As Bashir studied the scriptures, his countrymen prepared for war.
"The Nuba people said this is our country," he explained. "It was given to us by God, and we cannot allow these people to take this land from us."
He was 30 years old the first time he was arrested. In the following year, he was arrested twice more. Following his third arrest, he was shoved into a small, cramped military cell with 200 other people. When officers came to retrieve him, he was herded into the back of a pickup truck with nine other men. He knew several of the men, teachers at the high school in the village.
Bashir knew what awaited him. One of his relatives, a lawyer, had been killed two days earlier.
"They did not allow me to see the priest," he said. "I was thinking, how to meet Jesus if I was not clean?"
He observed a military commander run into the scene, "reacting violently," yelling at the soldiers, ordering them to put their guns down. Still calm, Bashir watched as each man was individually gunned down in front of him. But the commander knew the pastor - Bashir was the only one he rescued.
"I pray for them always, since that time," Bashir said of the nine other men.
The commander advised him not to stay in Sudan. He helped Bashir connect with a group of Sudanese heading to "liberated" areas of the south, where he worked with displaced civilians until he got sick. He went to Nairobi, Kenya for treatment, where a professor from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, offered Bashir a scholarship to study in the United States. Then 32, he took the offer and completed a master's degree in ethics.
"The reason I am here is because of the war. I never thought about coming to the U.S.," he said. "I wanted to go back, but the people at home and here said don't go, that the government was still looking for me."
- A STRANGE CULTURE -
"America is a unique country because it allows people to be free," said Bashir. "In Africa, in Sudan, it is not free. Missionaries are not allowed to go around freely. As local priests, they try to control us."
While this difference of American culture was welcome, other differences, such as the existence of nursing homes, was "shocking." The first time he celebrated Mass in a nursing home, Bashir asked one of the priests if the residents had no relatives.
"For us, we don't allow our elderly people or mothers to be alone," Bashir explained. "We have to take care of them, we believe God wants us to do that. But here, everyone is busy, working."
Shootings are also different. A shooting in Sudan is connected to a military or rebel movement. In the U.S., shootings occur for individual reasons, a cost of individual freedoms.
After completing his education at Xavier, Bashir was unable to find work in the church. He traveled to Nashville, Tenn., where he worked as a war relief case manager and a U.S. postal clerk, until he lost his job at the start of the economic recession.
Last year, an advocacy group focused on the Nuba region brought Bashir to Des Moines to speak on the situation in his country. After the conference, he spoke to Bishop Richard Pates about positions in the diocese. After a temporary stint in Des Moines, Bashir spent seven months in Osceola before arriving in Denison in July.
Bashir and Father Paul Kelly preach at alternate Masses at the St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Denison. Bashir also meets with students and celebrates Mass in Iowa nursing homes each week, in addition to serving on the board of Kuemper Catholic School System in Carroll.
He is anxiously waiting to see how much snow will fall in his new region of Iowa. A form of precipitation uncommon to Sudan, Bashir describes it as beautiful but said he still doesn't like it, especially when he has to drive on snow-slicked roads.
- FLICKERS OF HOPE -
In 2005, a second peace agreement was signed, and in 2011, South Sudan peacefully succeeded in an election that led to celebrations in the streets of Juba, selected as the new country's capital. However, disputes over oil resources and contested border regions led to renewed fighting in the South Kordofan and Blue Nile states in 2012. According to the Washington, D.C.-based nongovernmental organization United to End Genocide, nearly 500,000 people have been displaced so far by this latest conflict in the Nuba Mountains while the Sudanese government continues to block access for humanitarian-aid organizations.
Bashir has two brothers and four sisters still in Sudan, as well as extended family. Two of his sisters remain in the Nuba Mountains, but his other siblings are among those displaced by the recent turmoil.
"The government, maybe last month, bombed my area, my village. We lost almost 20 people," he said. "Every now and then they are bombing. Those who are not lucky, they die."
A little more than a year ago, Bashir, now in his 50s, returned to Sudan for the first time.
"Everything changed completely," he said, extending his hands. "I remember areas full of trees, all destroyed. People were gone - so many relatives I lost within that period. Small lakes, dry completely; human beings scattered everywhere."
Though Bashir is able to travel freely with his U.S. passport, his family and friends feared for his safety.
"I told them, even if they kill me, they won't kill my spirit - my spirit is with Christ. But they say, 'No, we need your body here,'" he said with a laugh.
He misses his culture, the food and the traditional dances. Though he was not able to stay, he still hopes to one day return home for good. Bashir said he sees his country in "real need," its youth scattered and without access to schools.
He also wants to share Christ with his people.
"I feel my faith growing every day, I think, that's why it makes me happy," he said. "Even though I went through so many difficulties, nothing discouraged me."
However, Bashir does not see a practical solution to the conflict in his homeland unless the current leader is removed from power or the international community intervenes.
"If there is (peace), I go," he said. "If there's not peace, I might still decide to go."