KHARTOUM/JUBA (Reuters) - In a dusty church in Khartoum’s Jeberona camp for displaced persons, the congregation claps and sings beneath a portrait of a smiling woman who has become a focus of hope for a divided country.
Josephine Bakhita, a former slave who died in 1947, has risen from obscurity to become the first saint from Darfur in western Sudan, a region convulsed by war for the past five years.
“I would say she was a gift from God ... an offer from God,” said Bishop Daniel Adwok, the Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Khartoum. “She has come on time for the conflict here in Sudan.”
The Roman Catholic Church canonized St. Bakhita a saint in 2000, three years before the start of the conflict in Darfur. Back then no one paid much attention to her birthplace, an obscure village in the remote western region.
That changed when fighting erupted around her old home.
Since then, Church authorities say Sudan’s Catholics have been directing their prayers to her for an end to the Darfur conflict.
In Jeberona, the packed service in St. Bakhita parish church is punctuated with songs honoring the saint and a homily from visiting priest Father George Jangara holding her up as an example of grace and forgiveness in troubled times.
Almost all the church members came to Jeberona fleeing the north-south civil war that raged for decades until a shaky peace deal in 2005. For them, the woman who gave her name to their parish has been a source of solace and inspiration.
“We were just thrown together here,” said 40-year-old Carisio Yusuf Ugale. “The conditions were terrible. So we turned to her and invoked her because of the suffering she had undergone.”
Mata Hassan, aged 24, fled Sudan’s central Nuba Mountains, the focus of some of most brutal fighting in the north-south conflict.
“She taught me to be humble,” he said. “We all pray through her intercession to God to give us the grace to find forgiveness for Darfur and for all the conflicts in Sudan.”
Outside, children play soccer under a huge mural of the saint’s face next to the concrete classrooms of Jeberona’s equally packed St. Bakhita parish school.
Further west in her home region of Darfur, the population — from marauding militias to families huddled in displacement camps — is predominantly Muslim: few have heard of the saint.
However, her fame has spread elsewhere.
In Juba, capital of Sudan’s mainly Christian south, her face appears on hats, key rings, badges and brightly printed cloth worn by southern women.
Missionaries named their radio station after her and the town’s Catholic bookshop sells DVDs and books of her life.
SNATCHED BY SLAVE-TRADERS
Bakhita was born in the Darfur region of Jabel Marra in about 1869 and was snatched by slave-traders when she was young. She had a succession of masters, who beat and branded her, before she was bought by an Italian diplomat in Khartoum.
He took her to Italy where she eventually joined a community of nuns where she lived until her death.
Church papers say she earned a reputation for kindness and forgiveness, offering to kiss the hands of the slave-traders who captured her if she ever met them again.
Italian supporters started a campaign to have her recognized as a saint soon after she died.
When she was canonized, she became Sudan’s first native saint. Pope John Paul II called her “a shining advocate of genuine emancipation” and a “sorella universale” — a universal sister.
Although Muslims might not know of her, she could still have a positive effect in the region, said Jangara.
“Forgiveness is a human thing. It is not just a Christian thing. The important thing is that her story should be known in Darfur,” said the priest, who is writing a book on her life.
“Unless we return to ask God for mercy, for forgiveness, so he can touch our hearts to forgive each other, we cannot find a solution for the problem of Darfur or southern Sudan in general.”
Estimates of the number of Catholics in the Muslim-dominated country range from fewer than two million to more than five million out of a total population of around 40 million, most of them in the south.
As with all Roman Catholic saints, there is a strong belief in her powers of intercession — her ability to appeal to God on behalf of others.
“If there are good changes in Darfur, it is because of her intercession. We hope she will bring peace to the land she came from,” said Juba seminarian Joseph Okanyi.
Church officials say she was quickly adopted by Catholics throughout Sudan who saw her as a role model for a generation emerging from decades of civil war. More recently, the Darfur conflict has featured in their prayers to her, they add.
Bishop Adwok says it is no coincidence that St. Bakhita came along when she did.
“It is providence,” he said, sitting in his office on the banks of the Nile in Khartoum, with a small St. Bakhita sticker on the door behind him.
“We always pray for the people of Darfur. And ... always to her, as a daughter of Darfur, a daughter of Sudan. She has to come in to assist in trying to calm the hearts of those who are concerned in that conflict.”