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Daniel of the year

While the battle over presidential election results dominates our domestic news, persecution for religious belief continues around the world.

In January of this year Michael Yerko set out from his home for the first pastors conference in Blue Nile, Sudan-a 60-mile walk. Three days later he arrived at the village only to learn that the conference had been relocated. Organizers moved the meeting to a town 30 miles north after discovering there was not enough food in the area to feed the guests. They sent a radio message to Michael-as Mr. Yerko by custom is called throughout the region-but it never reached him.

Michael took water as a defense against 115 degree heat. He set off on foot again. Twelve hours later he reached the town of Kurmuk. There Michael joined 40 other pastors and elders. For three days they read Bibles, sang hymns, and absorbed lessons on leading their churches. They took meals together and slept outdoors on the ground. It was the first time in memory any of the churches in this remote part of eastern Sudan had come together. It was the first time since missionaries were kicked out of the country in 1964 that they received extended teaching from outsiders-a Canadian pastor and a relief worker from Voice of the Martyrs, an Idaho pastor, and a Youth With a Mission worker from Texas.

Michael needed the time with colleagues as fortification for the rest of the year. He returned to his regular duties as an elder and teacher in the town of Wadega. Soon he put on a new hat: chief overseer of a displaced camp numbering 5,000. With some help from overseas relief organizations, he saw the homeless through starvation and a measles outbreak. He organized relief for the relief workers when a plane carrying supplies crash-landed in his backyard. He put up with threats on the ground from local Islamic leaders and threats from above, in the form of daily bombing runs courtesy of the Sudanese air force.

"All odds are against Michael," said Jim Prunty, a worker with the relief group Safe Harbor. "Working in an area that is 90 percent Muslim, he is persecuted, robbed, and harassed constantly."

The U.S. State Department reports that 200 million Christians have been persecuted for their faith this year. A new study, Religious Freedom in the World, edited by Paul Marshall of Freedom House, confirms curtailments of the right to worship freely and live out one's faith. In Sudan, freedom is not at issue; survival is. Two million people have been killed, nearly all at the hands of a brutal Islamic regime, in the world's longest-running civil war. Since March of this year, over 80,000 people made homeless by the war have showed up in the Blue Nile region where Michael lives.

But what does persecution look like in the trenches, amid the daily labor to do a job, feed a family, and get along with neighbors? Those who want to put a face to the statistical portrait should think of Michael. Standing just over five feet tall in rubber thongs, Michael personifies the David-and-Goliath contest waged by Christians against the dictatorship based in Khartoum, Sudan's capital. He is a profile of the stubborn success of the church across southern Sudan, where it has grown by tens of thousands since the Islamic regime outlawed Christian teaching there nearly 40 years ago. And he is an emblem of its pluckish survival, with a ready smile for the jaws of adversity, a swift step toward charity, and a steely eye to all earthly powers. That is why Michael Yerko is WORLD's third annual Daniel of the Year.

Michael was not born a saint. He does not know exactly when he was born, but he is probably near 60. He grew up in traditional tribal surroundings. His cheeks bear faint ritual scars of his Jumjum tribe. Along with most young men of his day, however, he was more captivated by Islam. But he says he was fuzzy about the content of its teaching. "I was pretending to be a Muslim. But I don't know what they are doing, I don't know what they are praying, I don't know how to fast," he said.

In 1961 Michael went to Khartoum in search of work. Despite his profession of Muslim faith, Michael discovered that Arabs in the capital discriminated against his dark skin. In their terms, he was an abid-roughly translated, a nigger. They refused him admission to the University of Khartoum and barred him from good jobs. He found low-paying work as a porter in the vegetable market. At night he slept on the street. Six months into this routine, he met Uduks from villages south of his home. The Uduks had been evangelized by Sudan Interior Mission and sent to study in the mission's Khartoum Bible school. They invited Michael to Sunday school. Intrigued that they were also learning English, he agreed to go. He spent two years under their tutelage, taking in catechism classes along with English, studying at night, and going to church regularly. He was baptized in Khartoum and stayed to raise a family of six. When his wife died suddenly, he could not support his family in the city, and returned to Wadega in 1979.

Back home, Michael was an instant anomaly: a literate Christian. Muslim converts and animists, clinging to old traditions of animal sacrifice and witchcraft, dominated the region. Although Sudan Interior Mission had a station near Wadega-a church, a clinic, and an airstrip-its evangelism efforts went notably unrewarded. Missionary Bill Rogers, who served in Wadega from 1951 until he was expelled by the Sudanese government in March 1964, told WORLD there were less than a dozen committed Jumjum Christians when he left Wadega.

Michael arrived home in time to watch government forces cement control of the region. They forced villagers to convert to Islam and imposed its strict civic code of Shariah law. They coerced them into dismantling the mission compound, brick by brick, and hauling the materials north to a government garrison. A local government commander named Taib Musba terrorized Uduk and Jumjum Christians. He ordered pastors killed in their churches, tortured prisoners by squeezing their heads between poles, killed civilians by rolling over them in a truck.

Michael became a survivor. From the rubble left by government onslaughts of the 1980s and 1990s, he rebuilt. Cement blocks from the mission compound became chairs and desks for a new school. A clinic slate was propped against the nearest tree. The government failed to provide schooling as it had promised, and so Michael's school became acceptable where his religion was not. Soon he was teaching the sons of Muslims for miles around. In addition to teaching basic literacy, "I let them pray if they are interested," he explained wryly.

The school gave Michael a wide door of ministry and respect in the community. He persisted in church planting, a quest made easier when the rebels fighting the government won control of Wadega in 1998. A grass-walled church sits nearly on top of the old Sudan Interior Mission church site. Regular attendance is 150. Johan Musman is the pastor, but Michael assists with Bible reading at all services and is the congregation's elder statesman. Like all of Michael's endeavors, its waves of growth ride in on tides of adversity.

In March of this year government forces launched a military offensive to clear oilfield regions just to the west of Wadega. It drove thousands of Mabaan tribespeople, mostly Christians, into Wadega. Soon Michael had an unmanageable number of both students and churchgoers. Worse, no one had enough food. By May malnutrition was evident among all the displaced, and children were beginning to die of starvation. A measles outbreak set in, too. Measles raged through the area because children across the region had gone at least 10 years without vaccinations. And they were weakened by persistent malnutrition. Hundreds died.

The offensive coincided with a political decision to cut off all European humanitarian aid to rebel-controlled areas. Relief groups receiving funding from European government agencies, including one group at work in Blue Nile, Church Ecumenical Action of Sudan, quickly saw resources cut. The group could no longer send enough grain and seed to Wadega or other areas of Blue Nile overrun by war victims.

American groups operating without government funds stepped up their own intervention. In June and July, teams from California-based Safe Harbor International Relief and Seattle-based Blue Nile Project delivered food to Wadega. Samaritan's Purse also flew in emergency supplies. Voice of the Martyrs already had donated blankets and other household items. To Michael fell the task of making not enough go all the way around. He prodded permanent residents to share goats with the homeless. He saw to the distribution of seeds and grain, but was harassed by locals wanting more. Church members cleared the old missionary airstrip in hopes of receiving additional aid. Having seen to the construction of a church within the displaced camp, Michael saw to its relocation before rainy season floodwaters threatened it. Despite the physical hardships, church leaders kept to a schedule of daily worship services. Blue Nile Project delivered Mabaan New Testaments and hymnals to Wadega just after the displaced began to arrive. "We are sticking together," Michael said.

Other challenges arose with the rainy season. Intense fighting erupted west and south. A Sudanese bomber flew several times a day over Wadega. The plane, a Russian-made Antonov, dropped bombs just to the south and was joined by helicopter gunships in retaking an area captured by southern rebels only months before. Local Islamic groups were more hostile toward Michael than ever. They blanketed the area with Islamic tracts and tried to undercut enthusiasm for church services. For the first time, Michael was not sure if he would be allowed to continue to teach school.

Relief workers believed many of his problems could be eased with fresh supplies. In August, Safe Harbor chartered a private cargo plane to fly in more than a ton of medicine and other supplies in a maiden landing on the reclaimed airstrip. It outmaneuvered Sudanese radar and the bomber but succumbed to Blue Nile mud. The airstrip's wet soil sucked both wheels and propellers deep into the ground upon landing. Crew and supplies survived but the crippled plane clogged the airstrip and-more importantly-gave the Antonov an on-the-ground target. Locals camouflaged the plane with mud for a time. It was repaired and flown out only recently.

Michael and other residents say fighting for the area has been more intense this year than in recent memory. That is no surprise. Sudan's state-owned National Petroleum Company plans to lay pipelines across the region if it can strike an oil deal with Ethiopia-and subdue this region. Michael has been a Christian in Muslim territory too long to put his faith in short-term political changes. But he is desperate to pass on what he knows-both in practical learning and spiritual knowledge-to a younger generation. "We have no teachers to teach," he said.

"Because Michael received most of his education before the civil war erupted, he is better equipped than the average fellow," said Glenn Penner of Voice of the Martyrs, teacher at the January conference. "Some of the pastors cannot even read. Most have less knowledge than a first-year Bible college student." So walking a hundred miles or more to hear Bible teaching is no problem because-in Michael's simple summation and a smile-"Christianity in Blue Nile is very difficult."

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.