Tributes have been paid to a Sudanese bishop who survived a dozen or more death threats while serving a people who suffered so much during the country's long and bloody civil war. Bishop Johnson Akio Mutek was laid to rest on Friday (22 March) in his Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul, Torit, a building devastated by ongoing bombing of the area during Sudan's 1983-2005 civil war.
Years of strain helping his people survive sustained military assault inevitably weakened the bishop's health and last Monday (18 March), after two kidney transplants in India, Bishop Akio died suddenly in Nairobi, Kenya. He was only 55.
In a message sent to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Adwok Kur of Khartoum, Sudan, said: "We are really saddened by the death of Bishop Akio. May the compassionate and merciful Lord reward him for his pastoral endeavours and receive him into his eternal peace."
Ordained priest in December 1988, Fr Akio served in Torit during the height of the aerial bombardment mounted by the Islamist regime in Khartoum, which systematically reduced the region to rubble.
At one point, Khartoum forces occupied the region, forcibly converting people to Islam, outlawing the local language in favour of Arabic and snatching children away for training as child soldiers.
Fr Akio worked alongside Bishop Paride Taban of Torit, often ministering to people behind enemy lines and helping evacuate them to safe areas away from the Antonov bombers. The bishop's own home was reportedly bombed more than 70 times within three weeks.
His responsibility for leading the people through war increased aged 40 when he became Auxiliary Bishop of Torit in May 1998. He took over control of the diocese nine years later.
In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Akio recalled the civil war, saying: "The people's anger welled up over many years and was constantly renewed by new experiences of pain and anguish."
The bishop pointed to a scar on his forehead, one of many assassination attempts.
Archbishop Paulino Lokurdu Loro of neighbouring Juba, marked the 25th anniversary of Torit diocese in December 2008 saying it was the area most affected by violence during Sudan's civil war.
Torit became part of South Sudan when the January 9 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between the Khartoum regime and southern-based rebels the Sudanese People's Liberation Army.
Bishop Akio was charged with rebuilding Torit diocese which was virtually razed to the ground – the cathedral, bishop's house and curial buildings were all in ruins. Until this point Torit was cut off from the outside world and in July 2009 staff from Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need made a long-awaited visit to Torit diocese where they were hosted by Bishop Akio.
Recalling the visit, Aid to the Church in Need's John Pontifex said: "Arriving in Bishop Akio's diocese, I was shocked by the scale of the devastation, unlike anything I had seen before. Barely one stone was left standing on another. The Catholic Church – with Bishop Akio as its shepherd – was charged with literally and metaphorically rebuilding the diocese from the ground up.
"It was a truly daunting task, with virtually no infrastructure available, but while others were downcast and fearful for the future, Bishop Akio was full of plans for the future. My strongest memory of him involves a visit to St Therese's Primary School in Torit where the children were tired from waiting. But the bishop soon turned their sadness into tears of joy by jumping onto a tree stump and singing a local chant with the refrain 'Jesus, Number One'."
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