Shepherd Under Fire
An Interview with Bishop Bullen Dolli of Sudan
Born in 1945, Bullen Dolli entered Bishop Gwynne Theological College for the ordained ministry in 1964. Because of the outbreak of the Sudanese civil war, he completed his theological studies in St. Paul’s United Theological College at Limuru, Kenya, in 1965, and was ordained in 1966 in Uganda. He worked in Zaire with Sudanese refugees, returning to Sudan in 1972, where he was appointed the archdeacon of Mundri in 1976.
Afterwards, Bishop Dolli received further theological training, including diplomas in church administration from Mindolo Ecumenical Center, and in economic development from Dublin, and a diploma in agriculture from Nairobi.
Dolli was selected as the new bishop of Lui Diocese in a process of consultation that included both those living in the countryside and those living in exile in the towns. He was consecrated bishop at Fraser Memorial Cathedral, Lui (a frequent target of Sudanese government bombs), on April 11, 1999. His episcopal responsibility covers not only his own diocese of Lui, but also the diocese of Mundri, whose bishop, Dr. Eluzai Munda, is confined to Juba.
Bishop Dolli has felt personally the devastation of Sudan’s war and persecution. As archdeacon of Mundri, he accompanied his people in their forced evacuation from Mundri to Juba in 1990, where he lived in exile until 1999. His own brother was tortured and murdered by government troops. In December 2000, Bishop Dolli barely escaped death when his cathedral was bombed by the government of Sudan. Bishop Dolli’s life is marked not only by his courageous, uncompromising faith, but also by his love and forgiveness for those who are enemies of Christ and his people.
Touchstone correspondent Mark Tooley interviewed Bishop Dolli in Washington, D.C., in October 2001.
Mark Tooley: Where are you from?
Bishop Bullen Dolli (BD): I’m from Lui in the southern Sudan, in the war zone.
Are you from there originally?
BD: Yes, that is my home church and my own place. I was born there; I grew up there.
How did you first become a Christian?
BD: I became a Christian when I was in Sunday school.
Was your family Anglican?
BD: My family was not Christian. When I became a Christian, through my witness and my life, then they became Christians. It was more love than what I said. But now they all are dead.
Who first invited you to Sunday school?
BD: It was through the school. The missionaries who went to my area opened a school. Through them I learned John 3:16.
How did you decide to become a priest?
BD: I decided that when I finished school I would go into the ministry of the church. The other contribution to this was the first missionary who came to my area. He was a major general in the First World War, a Scotsman. He started a school and a hospital and then a church. He wanted to develop the whole human being: mind, body, and soul.
Was he Presbyterian?
BD: No, he was a typical Anglican from Scotland! He came through CMS, Church Missionary Society.
How would you describe the origins of the current war in Sudan?
BD: When we got our independence from the British in 1956, we thought we would share the government together between north and south. But the colonial rulers handed the country over to the Arabs. They imposed their religion, culture, and customs on us. Their religion is not our religion. We wanted the freedom to decide whom to follow. The Africans of the south are Christian or animist. If one converts somebody, you let him decide how to worship God. But they believe in forcing people. Islam believes in submission. There are three ways they use to force conversion to Islam. The first is jihad, or holy war. The second method for converting people is through marriage. If you marry an Arab, then you must become Muslim. Automatically the children are Muslim. The third method is bribery. Giving money. They give you a lump of money. If you become a Muslim, you can become a rich man.
Where does the money come from?
BD: The government has a special fund for propagating the Islamic religion. All of that comes from other Arab countries that are supporting the Arabs in Sudan. Saudi Arabia sends money. Iraq sends money. Libya sends money. And other Arab countries.
When did the Sudanese government first turn towards a radical form of Islam?
BD: It was there from the early centuries. Islam was there. [British] General Gordon was there and was killed by the Mahdi [in the late nineteenth century]. The Arabs, when you follow the history of the country, are not the indigenous people of this land. They came from Saudi Arabia. They captured Khartoum and forced the Dinkas southward. The word Sudan actually means black.
Was there relative religious freedom under the British?
BD: The British were Christians. And they were the authority. There was freedom of religion. Sharia [Islamic] law was not in the constitution. But when we got our independence, then the Arabs said Sharia had to be introduced and put it in the constitution. They made it a Muslim state. They say they will never change that. After they added Sharia law to our constitution, they made Sunday a working day. Friday is the day of rest. All the schools in Sudan hold their examinations on Sunday. If you refuse to take it, then you will be expelled from the school. This is what they are doing. The Christians have half an hour to go worship and then come back to work. If you are late, that is the end of your employment. If you work for the government, they ask you to change your religion. And if you don’t, then they will send you off from the work.
When did Sharia law first begin?
BD: It began in the 1970s when Nimieri was in power. The mastermind behind Sharia law is Hassen Tharabi. He is an intimate friend of Osama bin Laden. He is a mullah [Islamic clergyman].
How has the war affected your family?
BD: There has been fear, death, and separation. Not just in my family but the whole Sudanese people. The children are separated from their families. As for myself, I was in a government-controlled area. I was elected as a bishop. I decided to go and stay with my people, the suffering people in the war zones. The SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] controls the area in the south where I am. I stayed in Juba. When my wife had a stroke, my children wanted to come to see her but found it difficult. They needed passports and air tickets. They had to fly from Juba to Khartoum to Nairobi. The hospital bill reached $800. That is a lot. She still continues with her treatment of physiotherapy.
Your brother was killed?
BD: Yes, he was killed. He was a construction engineer and was accused of being with the SPLA rebels. That was completely false. The NIF [National Islamic Front] government came and dragged him out of the house, tied a rope around his neck, tied him to a military jeep, and dragged him three miles. All his skin was worn off. They poured petrol over him and he was burned alive. He left four children. They are now with my children in Juba. So I need your prayers. I am responsible for my nieces and nephews.
How many Christians are in Sudan?
BD: The estimate from five years ago was that 80 percent of [southern] Sudan is Christian. But I think the number has grown more than that. We have 24 dioceses in the province of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. We have over 650 clergy in the Anglican Church. We have 40 pastors in my diocese. I supervise all these parishes. There is almost no transport. A few have bicycles. It is not easy. In spite of all this, they are doing their work. Even those with transport have trouble getting spare parts from Uganda and Kenya. My diocese is 8,000 square kilometers. I cover all this on a push-bike when I go for the confirmations. You can imagine the heat and the tsetse flies! That’s how I carry on pastoral duties. In addition to my own diocese, I have a sister diocese now. I am also the bishop there. That’s 15,000 square kilometers. Last year I confirmed 22,000 Christians. It took me one and one-half months to cover that area. That’s why I’m not fat! The type of car you need there is a Toyota land cruiser with four-wheel drive. This is what Samaritan’s Purse Hospital is using. It’s good for the rough roads.
What’s the second largest church?
BD: The Catholic Church is the largest. The second is the Anglican, then the Presbyterian, then the African Mission Church. Then we have Pentecostals, but they are small in numbers. We have Greek Orthodox in the north. And the Armenian Church. The church is growing despite all of this persecution. When the missionaries were expelled from Sudan in 1961, the Muslims believed that Christianity would die. But it added more fuel, and the church became very, very strong. But in the north the Christians are suffering. Most of our churches in the north have been destroyed. The Christians are not allowed to build. If they apply for a permit, they are told to “come tomorrow.” But tomorrow never comes. The church is growing through persecution.
As a Christian, how do you respond spiritually to Muslims who are trying to extinguish the Christian faith?
BD: We pray for them, that God will touch their hearts. We know them well, because we grew up with them. We played football together. We learned Arabic. We are able to read their language. Arabs can be your best friends. We don’t hate them. There are Muslims who are Christians in their hearts. But they are afraid to confess they are Christians. I tell the story of a military officer who was a Muslim. He started to read the Koran and the Bible. He found that the Christian word is the truth. He had been doing this for two years. The third year he found the truth. The truth is this: Mohammad died. And he never rose again. But Jesus died, and he rose again. What convinced him was that on the Last Day Jesus will come to judge. Mohammad will never come to be a judge. One day he went to worship on Friday. He was a committed Muslim. A good Muslim prays five times a day. We have some Christians who only go to church on Christmas and Easter. That man, when he confessed that he is no longer a Muslim, was taken and his fingernails were plucked out. He was taken to prison. We wrote a letter to the president, so he was released. We kept him in the cathedral in Khartoum. The former cathedral was built by the British in 1912. Now it is converted into a museum. And then they gave us a substitute. So we kept that man there. We smuggled him out. Christians once smuggled Bibles into Communist countries. But we smuggled him out of the country, dressing him as a woman. He is in Holland, went to theological college. Now he is ordained. He is coming back to me. He prefers to be with us.
Most of the people in your diocese, are they former Muslims?
BD: No. That is exceptional. Most people in my region were not Muslims. In Lui, after the SPLA took over, there was a mosque left behind. Nobody was praying in it. Only the mosquitoes are there. Even though our cathedral was bombed, we never touched the mosque. Even now it is still standing.
How do you keep Christians in your diocese from hating Muslims?
BD: I think it’s a matter of persuading them. It is something within a person. You talk about forgiveness. But it has to come from the heart. Lip-service will not work. An example: When my brother was killed, I preached in one of the services. The theme was love as found in John 3:16. In Sudan, Christians have known me as a pastor of one verse. I don’t preach from many verses but from one verse. On that Sunday, the text was from John 3:16 about the love of God. And then after the sermon the person appeared who accused my brother. He came to me. He asked me: “You know who is responsible for the death of your brother?” I looked right into his eyes and said nothing for a few minutes. I said, “Would you repeat that question again.” And he repeated it. The deacon who was with me was really puzzled. He wanted me to react. And I looked at him [my brother’s accuser] and I smiled. I embraced him as a brother. “What you did you did through ignorance,” I told him. He looked at me. He saw my smile, which came from my heart. Then I asked him to come to a dinner at my house. He was reluctant. He thought I was planning revenge, to poison his food and kill him. He came to my house. We ate from one dish. And we drank tea from one big mug. We drank the whole mug of tea and we prayed. I was praying for him. Praise the Lord, he is a lay reader in this church. In my diocese people pray for peace. We pray for John Garang, leader of the SPLA. And we pray for Bashir, president of the NIF, that God will touch their hearts and help them to find a solution. But the Arabs do not want to change the Sharia law.
How do you see the war being brought to a close?
BD: No one can predict it. It is only God. And I hope one day peace will come. We have to pray. You in the United States can convince your government so that as a superpower you can put sanctions against Sudan. We need safe havens in the south. We have been in the war for two decades. No education.
What are the main reasons for the growth of Christianity?
BD: The Great Commission from Matthew. Go forth and preach the gospel. In Sudan we take evangelism very seriously. It is not only the work of the clergy but of all people. Tertullian [the early Church father] said evangelism is the blood of the church. Without blood you are dead. We teach our people stewardship. For our people the Bible is a precious thing.
Do Christians worship in secret?
BD: No, they don’t, even in the north. They have open fellowship meetings and conventions.
What can Christians outside Sudan do most to help Christians in Sudan?
BD: You can support us with your prayers. When Peter was in prison, Christians prayed for him and he was released. Put pressure on your government to see that the oil from Sudan is stopped.
What do you think Christians outside Sudan can learn most from Sudanese Christians?
BD: You can learn perseverance. We have grown as Christians through persecution. You can learn forgiveness.
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“Shepherd Under Fire” first appeared in the April 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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