The Church Burnings At Yida

In the early morning hours of January 16, 2016, three churches in Yida Refugee Camp were torched. Over six months later, it is still unclear exactly why this crime was committed and who was behind it.

In 2011, the government of Sudan launched a brutal genocidal war against the people living in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Government warplanes have bombed schools, clinics, markets, and homes in an attempt to drive the Nuba people off of their land.

Yida Refugee Camp, where the photos seen below were recently taken, sits right on the international border that divides Sudan and South Sudan. The camp has exploded in size with refugees fleeing from the Nuba Mountains due to widespread government attacks against unarmed communities. In 2011, Yida only numbered several thousand inhabitants. The camp is now home to well over 70,000 people despite the United Nations recently abandoning Yida.

Charred logs from one of the Yida church burnings sites sit in front of the newly rebuilt church. Photo taken on May 27, 2016.

On a normal day, Yida is a relatively quiet place where refugees go about their daily lives. In the early morning hours of January 16, 2016, it was a much different story. Hundreds of Nuba Christians and other nearby camp residents were awakened by cries that their places of worship were burning. Within a few days, it became public knowledge that the churches were torched by a small group of individuals. And today, over six months later, it is still unclear exactly why.

Church Burnings Received No Media Attention

The torching of the three churches in Yida received virtually zero outside media coverage. The news broke on the Episcopal Church of Sudan Diocese of Kadugli’s website and was followed soon after with a blogpost on Morning Star News, a nonprofit news service that focuses on persecuted Christians around the world. Beyond that, no mainstream news agencies took up the story. You can see the full Morning Star News blogpost here and find a few excerpts below:

“Muslim extremists from Sudan have been arrested in connection with the burning of a church building in South Sudan, sources said…
Authorities arrested a Muslim suspect, identified only as Tia, who revealed the names of three other Muslim suspects, and police also captured them, including one identified only as Mohammad, sources said. One of the arrested men said they were sent from Sudan to attack churches and aid workers helping Nuba Christians from Sudan, a local Christian leader said.”
- Morning Star News blogpost
A child looks outside one of the newly rebuilt churches in Yida as a member of our media team films the congregation during their service. Photo taken on May 29, 2016.

We assume the Morning Star News blogpost reached a wide audience as our organization received numerous emails and phone calls from churches around the United States who support our work asking for additional information about the churches in Yida. And that is where the media coverage ended. Until now.

During a visit to Yida Refugee Camp between May 26–30, 2016, our media team visited the sites of the Yida church burnings and met with congregation members and pastors in two of them. Our hopes were that they would be able to shed some additional light on exactly what happened in the early morning hours of January 16, 2016. Several of the individuals present actually watched their church burn.

When asked about the church torchings and the alleged connection to Muslim extremists sent from the north, Christian leaders reacted with surprise and confusion. Not a single individual had even heard the story that Muslim extremists were behind the burning of their church. One Christian leader had this to say:

“I’m not sure what you mean. The man responsible for burning our church was crazy. I met him. He apologized to us and we forgave him. He was a Muslim, but he wasn’t sent here by anyone to hurt us. He was just crazy.”

Our media team put in a request with local authorities for additional information. They also could not verify the story that Muslim extremists were sent from the north across the border to burn the churches and attack aid workers.

Following Sunday morning service at one of the newly rebuilt churches in Yida, the congregation fellowships, dances, and sings outside as our media team films. Photo taken on May 29, 2016.

War Crime Or Crime?

The January 16, 2016 church burnings in Yida matter a great deal; not just because it severely impacted hundreds of refugees in the camp, but also because any potential motives behind the torchings remain unclear. With two narratives now existing on why the churches were burned down, it is important to discover the facts for the future safety of Yida refugees as well as for justice purposes.

If it ends up being true that Muslim extremists were sent by the government of Sudan to burn churches in Yida, with additional orders to attack aid workers, then this would amount to a war crime. It would also not be the first time the government of Sudan ordered an attack on Yida. In November of 2011, a Sudanese government war plane violated South Sudanese airspace to bomb Yida. If the Yida church burnings were sanctioned by the government of Sudan, then Yida’s residents may still be in danger and facing future attacks.

However, if the Christian leaders and eyewitnesses our media team spoke with are correct, then this amounts to arson by perpatrators that have been caught already.

The truth matters a great deal: for the safety of Yida’s residents, for future prosecutions of Sudanese government war criminals, and for the future of religious minorities in Sudan.

The people of Sudan are overcoming two of the greatest challenges facing humanity today: war and genocide. Operation Broken Silence is working to accelerate their ability to generate lasting change through storyelling and movement building, education and emergency response, and grassroots advocacy programs.

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