By Leo Devine
Bishop Zechariah Manyok Biar is the Bishop of Wanglei in South Sudan. As bishops go, his diocese and personal back story couldn’t be more of a contrast to many of his fellow episcopates meeting this week in Canterbury.
Theologically, he sympathises with the conservatives at the Lambeth Conference and the debate concerning human sexuality and same-sex marriage that has dominated the week. However, for Bishop Zechariah there are many more pressing and practical considerations to focus his thinking.
Back home in South Sudan, the majority of his diocese has been under water since 2020, a consequence of climate change, and there are no signs of the floods receding. The resulting crisis has devastated the lives of thousands. Up to 90 per cent of the population has been displaced with many forced into refugee camps in nearby areas. Those that remain face intolerable conditions.
Frantic digging continues day and night to build makeshift dykes that are repeatedly and inevitably overwhelmed. Waterborne diseases also threaten the beleaguered population. Coupled with hunger and a lack of medical resources, daily life has become perilous for all who live in the region.
Until this year, the United Nations contributed substantial funds to alleviate the worst of the suffering, but with a focus now on Ukraine, the funding has abruptly stopped and Bishop Zechariah feels the plight of his people has largely been forgotten.
Zechariah is no stranger to extreme hardship. His story towards priesthood and eventual consecration is truly shocking and difficult for western ears.
In 1987, as a 12-year-old, Zechariah was forced to flee with thousands of other boys into nearby Ethiopia to escape the fighting and possible conscription in the civil war. Thousands of children marched for weeks across difficult terrain without any adult supervision or protection. Many, including Zechariah, became sick. Hundreds died along the way.
Zechariah told me how the pitiful caravan would stop to bury its dead, but only if it was safe to do so. Very often it was not safe, and the children’s bodies were abandoned where they lay. During one particular gruesome incident, the Oromo Liberation Army, an armed group from Ethiopia, forced the children to cross a fast-flowing and dangerously high river. Dozens died.
These children, both the living and the dead, are now referred to as the Lost Boys of South Sudan, a description Zechariah recognises and readily uses.
Eventually, the remaining children, a group of about 20,000, were marched into Kenya where Zechariah felt inspired to join the leftist SPLA rebels — the Sudanese People Liberation Army.
Although offering his services as an unordained Christian “chaplain”, he was given a Russian assault rifle and thrust into the worst of the fighting. He said the experience gave him a sense of responsibility and made him feel like a “grown-up”.
“You had to do something,” he said. “To do nothing meant choosing not to survive”.
As a Christian, Zechariah explained how his role included urging and stopping other rebel soldiers from raping and killing women when victorious, and preventing the summary executions of captured prisoners of war. It was brutal, he said.
And yet his horror at the indiscriminate violence, did not prevent him from fighting what he called “the just war”.
I asked him if he had killed; his response was matter-of-fact: “When the enemy is attacking, you cannot spray them with machinegun fire and not kill people. But I believed these were the actions of a just war … we have to believe that there are conditions in war where these things are not bad things.”
Zechariah credits the army, and in particular his battalion commander, for changing his life in 1999. The SPLA decided he should go back to school and receive an education. The war prevented study in South Sudan, and so he was sent initially to South Africa. Further studies and qualifications followed in Uganda, from where he travelled to the United States to obtain masters degrees in theology and social work.
This transformation in his fortunes ultimately led him back to a calmer and more positive South Sudan and the first steps to ordination as a priest and, in 2016, to consecration as a bishop.
As I sat with Zechariah in leafy, comfortable Canterbury, listening to his remarkable story of hardship and brutality, I asked him what he made of Lambeth and whether a conference thousands of miles from home had any significance for him.
His answer was one of hope: “The message I will take back is that the Anglican Communion is now focused on social justice, which is a good thing. People who are suffering, like the people in my diocese, are the beneficiaries of social justice … we have to continue to advocate for the vulnerable.”