The St. Mary Help of Christians Cathedral in Wau, South Sudan is now home to 10,000 people who left their villages amid an ongoing civil war in the country, IRIN News reports.
Crude tents and temporary shelters surround the largest church in the African nation to accommodate the internally displaced people (IDPs). Children and the elderly cramp in the limited space in the cathedral.
St. Mary’s priest, Fr. Moses Peter, said, “Those who flee believe that even rebels still fear God and would not slaughter civilians in the backyard of a church.” He added that many churches have offered sanctuary to hundreds of people.
A civil war broke out in 2013 between the allies of President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, the dismissed vice-president. Wau was not affected by the violence until April this year when rebels ambushed government soldiers in the city and killed at least 16 civilians. In June, another attack between the two sides left 400 dead.
Despite the safety provided at the cathedral, the IDPs face hunger and are still fearful of the violence outside the camp.
According to Sight Magazine, the World Food Programme (WFP) stopped food distribution in refugee camps, including St. Mary’s, following the death of three of its staff members caused by the conflict. The organization, however, continues to assist displaced South Sudanese living in a U.N. protection of civilians (PoC) site in a nearby town.
WFP explained that, “We have been unable to serve people outside the PoC as we did not have assurance of safety and security for our staff members.” It vowed that once security is in place, WFP will resume its assistance to the other camps.
Christianity is the main religion in South Sudan and people seek refuge in churches during adverse situations.
“People flock to churches in times of insecurity. Most of them have a strong faith. They believe that they are best protected here and in case of an attack, they’d rather die in the house of God,” said Fr. Moses.