JUBA, Sudan — A sign welcoming visitors to the “193rd country of the world” is the second thing most people notice when they step off the plane at the Juba international airport.
The first is the temperature — about 102 degrees Fahrenheit.
On July 9, this East African city — hot and dusty during the dry season — becomes the capital of South Sudan.
After decades of armed conflict between Sudan’s Muslim north and its Christian and animist south, people here voted for independence in a January referendum.
Now, the world’s newest nation faces a host of challenges. At Juba’s airport — about the size of a small strip mall — immigration officers write visitors’ names in worn notebooks as luggage arrives on a cart pulled by a tractor.
On one of the few paved roads in the city, Isaya Jackson points to stands of pineapples and melons. Most of them are imported, he says.
But what the country lacks in infrastructure, it makes up for in enthusiasm, says Jackson, a Sudanese native who worships with a small Church of Christ in his home.
“The coming independence means freedom from slavery at last,” he says. “It means the end of religious persecution, the end of second-class citizenship, no more forced Islamization. It means southern Sudanese will, for the first time, be in charge of their own destiny.” CROSSES IN GOVERNMENT OFFICES
Jackson, who was baptized as a refugee in the U.S., isn’t the only church planter in Juba. Isaac and Janet Adotey, natives of the West African nation of Ghana, moved here about a year ago, sponsored by the Nsawam Road Church of Christ in Ghana’s capital, Accra, with financial support from a Church of Christ in Arkansas.
Isaac Adotey, 57, leads Jackson and a group of U.S. visitors into an office of the Government of South Sudan to meet Zechariah Manyok Biar, a government official with ties to Churches of Christ.
“I’m Anglican,” Biar says as he shakes hands with the guests, “but I’m praying for the Church of Christ.”
Born in Juba, Biar fled to Ethiopia at age 13 as the war raged. He joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA, and was a machine gunner.
Later, he was a translator for Dr. Mike Smith, a U.S. physician who did medical mission work in Sudan. Smith helped Biar gain admission to Abilene Christian University in Texas. Biar returned to Sudan to help his new government implement its first laws.
Biar says he’s encouraged by the work of Churches of Christ in South Sudan. In the town of Nimule, south of Juba, Christians from Uganda have established benevolence works and planted congregations. To the north, church member John Gak and the Swope Parkway Church of Christ in Kansas City, Mo., are building a school and church in Gak’s home district, Bor.
“If you would like the Church of Christ to grow, concentrate on the rural areas,” Biar tells the visitors. The new nation has freedom of religion, though Biar cautions against pulling people away from other Christian groups.
During the war, Christianity was a sustaining force for the SPLA. “In one attack, I lost almost all the members of my church,” Biar says. “Sometimes I think it wasn’t because I was a better soldier. I think God saved me for a reason.”
“Today, if you go to any office of the government, you will find the cross there,” he adds. BIBLE STUDIES IN ARABIC
Later, the church members travel a long, dirt road to the Adoteys’ neighborhood on the outskirts of Juba.
There, about a dozen Sudanese emerge from stick-and-mud shelters to hear minister Don Humphrey conduct a Bible study. Modesto Silvano translates Humphrey’s words into Arabic — a language South Sudanese were forced to learn when ruled by the Muslim majority.
Janet Adotey hands Bibles to the younger Sudanese and helps them find Scriptures. The missionary wife is learning to sing in Arabic so the group can add praise songs to their devotionals.
As the study concludes, Silvano asks Humphrey questions about baptism. He is intrigued by the minister’s words and says he’s glad that he now lives in a nation where he can study the Bible freely.
Living in Juba isn’t easy, “but some people have to take the risk,” Isaac Adotey says. “It’s good we are here.”