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Khartoum: Where He Left His Heart

Fr. Daniel Comboni was only 28 when he entered the city of Khartoum on his way to Holy Cross, his first mission. Sick and exhausted, he returned to Europe the following year but he “left there his heart.” To Khartoum, he came back as Bishop and there he died prematurely at only 50. Four years later, even his bones were scattered on the African soil as seeds of the future.

In May 1873, Msgr. Daniel Comboni entered Khartoum as Head of the Vicariate of Central Africa and delivered his famous homily: “Unfortunate Africa was the first love of my youth…Sixteen years ago, I left my heart here, as I was forced by sickness to go back home. Today, I come back to you at last and I regain my heart.”

Fr. Daniel Comboni had set foot in Khartoum, with his five companions, in 1858, full of juvenile enthusiasm, only to be disappointed by failure. But his love for Africa was invincible and soon Khartoum became the headquarters of his missionary initiatives.

Khartoum was established in 1821 by Ibrahim Pasha. It is strategically located at the confluence of the White Nile, flowing north from Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile, flowing west from Ethiopia. By the time of Comboni, it had developed into a regional trade centre and a focal point for the slave trade. 

In 1884, only three years after Comboni’s death, the followers of the Mahdi besieged Khartoum. The siege ended with the massacre of all its inhabitants including the heroic governor, Gordon Pasha. The Comboni missionaries in the city had been warned by their fellow members of the other mission stations who were captured by the Mahadists and had left the place. 

All the same, the tombs of the missionaries, including the one of Comboni, were desecrated by the Dervishes looking for hidden treasures. The remaining bones of the Saint were retrieved by Fr. Joseph Ohrwalder who survived the long captivity and was the first to return to Khartoum after the defeat of the Mahadists. 

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Khartoum was the destination for hundreds of thousands of refugees from South Sudan and Darfur who, fleeing the violence of the Sudanese Civil War and Darfur conflict, settled in large slums at the outskirts of the city. It was during this time, when the number of Christians had grown considerably, that Pope John Paul II paid his controversial visit to the Sudan.

He arrived in the Sudanese capital in February 1993 to lend his support to the Christians who were caught up in the fighting between the north and the south of the Sudan. The Pontiff had been warned that the hands of the Sudanese  president, General Omar Bashir, were “dripping with the blood of Sudanese Christians.” 

Undeterred, the 72-year-old pontiff landed in Khartoum, was received by Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir, Comboni’s sixth successor, and then was escorted through the streets of the capital, to a rapturous welcome. After meeting priests and nuns at the cathedral, the Pope had a private meeting with Bashir, whom many accused of war crimes. 

The Pope was firm when he told Bashir that, as leader of the Sudan, he had a “universal obligation to understand and respect the variety and richness of other peoples, societies, cultures and religions.” The occasion was a triumph for the Christians who saw the Pope surrounded by a crowd of almost one million people.

Nowadays, Khartoum is a metropolis with an estimated overall population of over five million people. The Comboni Missionaries are still present, especially with the Comboni College, as valid collaborators of the local Church. Cardinal Zubeir stated this in the letter of gratitude he wrote them on the occasion of his retirement in November 2016.

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