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Daniel of the year

National | While the battle over presidential election results dominates our domestic news, persecution for religious belief continues around the world. That spiritual and physical warfare has produced a number-200 million Christians persecuted-but not a face. Now it has one: WORLD's third Daniel of the Year is Michael Yerko, who personifies how difficult it is to be a Christian in Sudan

Issue: "Mad Dash," Dec. 16, 2000

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.

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"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.

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