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When fighting in Sudan’s capital Khartoum intensified, with missiles endlessly hitting St. Joseph Vocational Training Centre of the Salesians of Don Bosco, the Catholic community around the college begged the missionaries to leave.

Fr. Chrisrea Allen who served as the administrator of the technical college that was located at the heart of the city recalls the plea of the locals who also promised the SDB members that they would “keep the faith alive” in the absence of the missionaries.

“The people assured us that they would hold onto the Catholic faith amid the war until we came back. They were full of hope that the war would end and that we would go back to Sudan. But they begged us to leave because they thought we were going to either starve or be killed by the missiles that kept hitting the college where we were holed,” Fr. Allen tells ACI Africa.

Activities at the college had stopped as fighting in the city intensified.  Some 560 students at the college, most of them Islamic Sudanese students, were sent home.

For slightly over a month since the war between Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) broke out on 15 April 2023, staff and some students who had remained at the college tried to manage the little food and water they had. Movement from the college was restricted and the inhabitants had no way to get new food supplies. Locals would occasionally sneak into the college bringing food. But when surviving became difficult for them too, they begged the Salesians to flee.

Fr. Allen describes the day that the Salesians shut down their community in Khartoum as one of the saddest in his life. “We were very sad to close our community. But we had been in constant communication with our superiors in Kenya and Rome and they kept advising us to leave. The local faithful also begged us to leave. They told us that they would be waiting for us to go back and rebuild the Salesian community when the war ended,” the SDB Priest says.

Fr. Allen recently spoke to ACI Africa from the SDB community in South Sudan’s capital Juba where he is managing the Congregation’s technical college.  When he and the other SDB missionaries fled from Khartoum, they sought refuge in Juba, bringing with them 63 students from St. Joseph Vocational Training Centre. The returnee students, most of them South Sudanese, have proceeded with their technical courses in Juba. Fr. Allen reminisces about the first days of the war in Sudan, saying that no one saw it coming.

“I was working at St Joseph as the administrator. One day as I left the institution to run some errands, I found tankers blocking my way. Some heavily armed men instructed me to go back to where I had come from,” he tells ACI Africa, recalling the beginning of the difficult days he had at the Salesian community in Khartoum.

“Lots of missiles were launched in our community. Some buildings, including the students’ hall, were destroyed,” he says, adding that the electricity supply was disconnected and the SDB community which was surrounded by the RSF came close to starving. 

When Fr. Allen and his companions finally left their community in Khartoum, on 27 May 2023, most religious had left the city.

He recalls being tortured along the way by fighters who didn’t care that they were priests.

“We were stopped at several military checkpoints and violently searched by armed men,” the Indian priest says, and adds, “Being foreigners, we would be singled out and be made to kneel on the road.”

“The men didn’t care that we were priests. Sudan is mostly an Islamic country where Catholicism is not very well understood. In fact, other religions, apart from Islam, are seen as centers where people only meet to pray,” Fr. Allen says.

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He recalls that on the way, Fr. Jacob Thelekkadan who served as the director of St. Joseph Vocational Training Centre, and a few others in their company chose to stay at Dar Marian, a community of about 60 Salesian Sisters who also have education projects in Shajara, about seven kilometers from Khartoum.

“Even though our superiors in Kenya and Rome encouraged us to flee from the war, Fr. Jacob insisted on staying, saying that “someone has to remain in Sudan to rebuild our community once the war is over.”

Even though the catholic community in the entire Sudan is only about 3 percent, the Church is respected in the northeastern African country owing to its work in education and other development projects.  In Sudan, we run primary schools, secondary schools and provide technical skills to young people, most of them non-Catholic,” Fr. Allen says.

Back in Juba, Fr. Allen joined his confreres in the running of a parish, a primary school, a secondary school, and a technical college

The Sudanese conflict has become a full-fledged civil war in the entire country and has reportedly killed at least 14,700 people and injured almost 30,000 more. The number of people displaced by conflict since the war broke out inside and outside of Sudan has reached 8.2 million.

Pope Francis has renewed his appeal for peace in Sudan, calling on the countries warring parties to lay down their weapons and stop fighting.

The Holy Father who was speaking after the Angelus on Sunday, June 2 prayed for peace in Sudan and called on the international community to help bring peace in the northeastern African nation.

“I invite you to pray for Sudan, where the war that has been going on for over a year still has not found a peaceful solution,” Pope Francis said.

He said, “May the weapons be silenced and, with the commitment of the local authorities and the international community, help be brought to the population and the many displaced people.”