[Focus Magazine, Diocese of Southern Queensland] It’s been about one year since Bishop Daniel Abot answered a call from God to return to northern Africa to bring spiritual help and peace to a war-torn country.
Last year the former refugee-turned-Anglican priest left his family safe and sound in the city of Toowoomba, west of Brisbane, and travelled 11,500km to the troubled region of Bor, about 100km north of the capital Juba, in his homeland of South Sudan.
This year he was enthroned as Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Duk, in northern Bor.
“It is a tough time for my family but when you have a family that believes in God you can sacrifice for God’s sake,” says Bishop Daniel of his decision to return to South Sudan.
“They pray for me. They know I don’t abandon them. I do what God calls of me.”
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 as part of a peace deal to end Africa’s longest-running civil war which claimed over one million lives. But the young state returned to crisis in 2013 as fighting broke out between the government and rebel troops.
About 100,000 people have been killed in fighting between two ethnic groups, the Dinka and Nuer, who before the war were interdependent. Many innocent people, including women, children, the elderly and disabled, have been displaced.
Bishop Daniel’s new diocese has virtually no infrastructure, staff or money. Many of Bishop Daniel’s family and friends urged him to return to South Sudan to help.
He says he has two main goals: To provide spiritual support to the people and help reconcile the warring groups in his diocese.
“I have suffered [as a refugee], so I know the feeling of someone who is suffering and needs help,” he says.
“People talk of peace. Leaders are negotiating to bring peace. At the grassroots, people are still struggling because there is no peace. They are not getting food, medicine, any services.”
The United Nations considers South Sudan so dangerous that it has been unwilling to send its personnel into certain areas. In September the editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper The Citizen quit after allegedly receiving death threats from government agents.
Seven journalists have been killed by unknown assailants in the past year.
On one occasion the UN asked Bishop Daniel if he would be prepared to deliver four truckloads of supplies to war-ravaged civilians.
“I said ‘I’ll take the risk. I’ll take that food to the area. If I can’t do it, it would be hard for anyone to do it,’” he says.
“It was frightening. These trucks were going to that dangerous border of Nuer and Dinka where the lands are occupied by rebels and the government.
“At any time there could have been a clash between those groups. It was not too comfortable but I strongly believe God is my protector.”
On arrival in the conflict zone, Bishop Daniel, a Dinka man, and Anglican Bishop Thomas Tut, a Nuer man, jointly distributed the food in a show of Christian solidarity.
“We joined hands together. We were successful in that part of the country to bring people together, to share food and share prayers,” Bishop Daniel says.
“We took that opportunity. The people had one thing in common – they were starving. If we can bring peace to that part of the country, that peace might [spread to the rest of] South Sudan.”
Bishop Daniel says the peace in the border area has held since his visit. He has also visited displaced members of his diocese living in the bush in South Sudan and in refugee camps in Uganda.
He has been reporting back to his fellow parishioners at St James’ Anglican Church in Toowoomba, who are supporting him on his mission.
It was the first church he joined, in 2003, after he, his wife Rachael and their seven children arrived in Australia as refugees. They were one of five Sudanese families in the congregation.
Working as an honorary priest, he helped increase the number of Sudanese expatriates in the congregation.
“The Anglican Church was so supportive of us when we arrived. It always made us feel at home,” says Bishop Daniel.
“When refugees come to a new country they always want to know where the church is. My job was to find out who the new people were and what their religion was. If they were Anglican, it was just a matter of visiting and telling them what was happening in the parish.
“Everyone just came and connected with one another – they were very happy to receive their brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Bishop Daniel knows the pain and fear of displaced families in South Sudan in a way that few of us can understand.
He spent nine years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia after fleeing Sudan at the age of nine, before the country was divided into two separate nations, Republic of Sudan and South Sudan, in 2011.
He was one of Sudan’s ‘lost boys’, a name given to the more than 20,000 boys who were displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War, from 1983 to 2005, which the BBC reports killed 1.5 million people and left four million homeless.
As part of a group he fled to a refugee camp containing 180,000 people – and found God along the way.
“A lot of children lost their lives. There was one militia to take care of 200 children,” he says.
“That’s when God revealed himself to me. I kept asking, why did I survive? It’s God. That’s why I became connected. I knew there was something there helping me.
“When we arrived in Ethiopia we had prayers under the trees. We sang a song, a prayer to God.”
Conditions in the refugee camp were “horrible”.
“There was very little food, the hygiene was poor, the environment poor. There was three in a bed and malaria and cholera.
“There was a lot of raping and killing. It was very tough. Life was miserable. Every day I knew pain. I didn’t have a choice. I just prayed to God.”
Young Daniel spent a further nine years in a Kenyan refugee camp, where he dedicated his time to church, attending Sunday School and working with youths.
He was nominated with two others to go to Bible studies in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and was ordained an Anglican deacon in 1999, four days before the United Nations granted him and his family a refugee visa to Australia.
The experience of leaving Africa, travelling on a plane and seeing white people for the first time was “very scary,” for his children, Bishop Daniel says.
“They refused the food,” he says. “Everything was totally different. It was a huge experience with no real language in a new environment.
“We tested everything during our first month. We ate meat, drank milk and went to a Sunday market with food from a lot of different cultures. We adopted the life here.”
Bishop Geoff Smith, of the Anglican Church Southern Queensland, says there are considerable risks involved in what Bishop Daniel is attempting to do in South Sudan.
“Security is still not assured and travel for him in his diocese is risky,” says Bishop Geoff.
“Bishop Daniel’s family have remained in Toowoomba so both he and they are making significant sacrifices so he can answer the call to help South Sudan.”
Bishop Daniel is calling for more support to expand his mission in South Sudan. He has priests in his diocese willing to help him but they lack formal qualifications.
He says $1,100 [AUS - approximately £515 GBP] would cover the costs of theological training, accommodation and food for 12 months for an individual in South Sudan.
To support the work of Bishop Daniel, please contact Bishop Cameron Venables in the Diocese of Southern Queensland.
- This article first appeared in Focus - the magazine of the Anglican Diocese of Southern Queensland.