Sudan has captured our nation’s attention recently; U.S. attacks on suspected terrorist training areas even stole the spotlight from the Lewinsky affair for a brief time. But that brief national glance at Sudan did little to uncover the real story in this nation of 33 million: the story of a government that is slowly exterminating, with few international repercussions, a large minority of its own countrymen.
A front-page article in the July 7 Washington Post documented the desperate situation that prevails in southern Sudan, where an estimated 1.2 million people are at risk of death from starvation. The story attributes the crisis to a combination of drought and “disruption of food production” resulting from the ongoing civil war between the Christian and animist Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south and the Muslim government in the north. While the story acknowledges that the government bureaucracy has been a barrier to relief efforts—in fact, the regime banned efforts outright in February and March—the reader gets the distinct impression that the Sudanese government now recognizes its predicament and is cooperating with the international community to avert a catastrophe.
Bishop Macram Gassis has a different perspective on the crisis. Based on his experience as the pastor of the El Obeid diocese of southern Sudan, one of the regions hit hardest by the famine, he believes something else is at work. He calls it genocide.
According to Bishop Macram, since 1985 the Islamic fundamentalist regime in the capital, Khartoum, has been carrying out a jihad against the black Christians of the south, with the explicit aim of wiping them out. The current crisis—in which thousands of southern Sudanese die every day—is the result of a deliberate effort on the part of the regime to eliminate Christians. According to the bishop: “The Mujahidin and the army go in and plunder the villages. They bring in the women and the children by force. They don’t allow food to come to the areas controlled by the SPLA so that the people will have to leave their homes and go to the government areas [in the north].”
The attacks of the army and the Mujahidin (the fundamentalist Muslim militia with which the government has worked hand in glove to carry out their policy of extermination) have intensified in recent months. In early May of this year, just when Sudan was receiving numerous plaudits from international charitable organizations for opening new airstrips to permit the delivery of aid to famine-stricken areas, the Sudanese government was vigorously pursuing the extermination of the Dinkas. From May 3 to 16, government soldiers—accompanied by the Mujahidin—swept through the region of Abyei, killing and abducting hundreds (perhaps thousands) of villagers, burning homes and crops, and looting property. The existing infrastructure of the area was destroyed, the grasslands were left empty, and the survivors were left to suffer a government-created famine that months later has reached crisis proportions.
Bishop Macram explains that the supplies sent by relief organizations are used by the government as a weapon to forcibly convert Christians. “Relief is sent to the suffering people and it doesn’t reach the intended beneficiaries. If it does get to the afflicted areas where the Christians are—the Nuba Mountains and the Abyei region of the Dinkas—they tell the people, ‘You want this? Become a Muslim; otherwise, nothing.'” The government, says the bishop, is taking advantage of the food crisis to step up its persecution, as the Mujahidin—with full support from the regime in Khartoum—continues to enslave thousands of Christians, primarily youth. “Just before I left for Europe, I was informed by my people that the Mujahidin plundered and burned five separate Dinka areas, killing and abducting Dinka girls and boys—just children. Thousands of these young boys and girls have been taken by these militias. The girls are either going to be used as instruments of sexual pleasure for a short time by these Islamic militias, or they will be taken as concubines. They didn’t make a vow of chastity, these militia, and for them to go and rape and humiliate the dignity of a woman is like drinking a glass of water.”
A native of Sudan born in Khartoum, Bishop Macram attended seminary in Italy and England. He became well acquainted with the U.S.—for which he retains a great fondness—when he earned his doctorate in canon law at Catholic University of America in the late ’70s. “It’s hard to be a foreigner here. Who are the natives? All the people with white skin, dark skin; they are all imported. But they made a beautiful nation.”
When he left the diocese of El Obeid in 1990 to undergo surgery for bile-duct cancer, he had no notion that he would spend the rest of the decade as a bishop in exile. After his testimony before a congressional committee in 1988, in which he told of Christian children being enslaved by government-supported Islamic militia, he was prevented from returning to his diocese by the Khartoum regime. “God gave me a new life,” Bishop Macram says simply. “It took me almost three years to regain my strength. Then I decided to go back and nurture my flock—to the extent possible—in areas where I could be relatively safe from the government. I cannot go back to the seat of my diocese.” In his enforced exile, Bishop Macram devotes himself to increasing public awareness of Christian persecution in Sudan. Despite the dangers of the ongoing war and his possible arrest, he also returns periodically to help distribute aid and perform his pastoral duties.
Keeping the Faith
In an age when bishops in the developed Western nations agonize over issues such as gender neutrality in liturgical translations and the challenges of preaching the Gospel effectively in a materialistic culture, Bishop Macram agonizes over the survival of his persecuted flock, who face forced conversion, enslavement, and martyrdom. In a country where the Church faces active persecution, people tend to focus on what’s relevant and sustaining in the practice of the faith. To Sudanese Catholics suffering and dying under a hostile regime, the Church is the source of their spiritual sustenance, hardly an institution of arbitrary and constraining authority.
“Whenever there is oppression and persecution,” says Bishop Macram, “the Church flourishes. People have to make a fundamental choice—either I’m in or I’m out; either I will take my faith seriously and struggle to be a good Christian, or I will leave the faith altogether. Most in Sudan have opted in. It is just like purifying gold in a fire: Many who were lukewarm Christians have become more attached to the Church and more fervent in the practice of the faith. They realize their brothers and sisters are being oppressed and they won’t have it.”
Conversions, too, continue despite the persecutions. “The faith has been kept alive by our heroic catechists,” says Bishop Macram. “They are the ones who attend to the needs of the faithful in the Nuba Mountains region—which is as big as Scotland—and the Dinka areas to the south, which are part and parcel of my diocese. The Church has become self-propagating because of the catechists. I haven’t been to the Abyei district for the last ten years because of the insecure situation there. Now that the SPLA has cleared that area, the catechists have been sending me messages to come and give thousands confirmation. There are so many young men and young women waiting for not only confirmation, but for the bishop to confirm their marriages. Of course, the catechists have the mandate to baptize because it is a war situation, and they have baptized thousands and thousands.”
There is also a slow increase in the number of vocations to the priesthood and the religious, but the bishop faces great challenges in education and training. “Our handicap,” says the bishop, “is the total destruction of any educational system. How are we to put young men and women into a seminary or convent, how are we to admit them if they are totally ignorant, if they have no academic formation?”
International attention to Sudan’s plight most often translates into increased aid to the government that only worsens the situation for the Christian minority. Often, international relief agencies and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) don’t have a sufficient presence on the ground in Sudan, and as a result rely too much on the army to distribute aid. “I encourage aid to be given to the areas under control of the government as well as the areas controlled by the SPLA, but the NGOs should not use the government agencies for distribution, because then they will never be able to monitor the distribution in an ethical way,” says the bishop.
Church-associated groups like Church Ecumenical Action Sudan (CEAS) and Catholic Relief Services Sudan— which have the facilities to purchase, transport, and distribute relief items—have received relatively little assistance from the NGOs or anyone else. Bishop Macram remains skeptical about the motives behind the recent opening of more airstrips by the government. “They interdicted any organization from taking food and relief to the hundreds and thousands who live in SPLA areas. Nothing has changed as far as I can see. I don’t believe what the government is saying until I can see it with my own eyes.”
Rebels with Cause
The western media’s characterization of the SPLA forces resisting army and Mujahidin attacks in the southern region as “rebels” is something Bishop Macram finds particularly objectionable. “Nobody can tell me as a bishop that this conflict does not have a religious motivation. Religion is definitely playing a major factor in this holocaust—and I call it a holocaust, just like what happened in the Second World War. Of course there is a racial element as well; for the Arab government, the equation is: blacks are slaves, Christians are blacks. If they are Christians and blacks, they are rebels, and they have to be eliminated.”
More than the persecution of Christians, one aspect of the Sudanese situation that has captivated the Western media is slavery. Since the Baltimore Sun “broke” the story three years ago (six years after Bishop Macram testified about it before Congress), several international organizations—mostly Christian—have dedicated themselves to buying back the children enslaved by the Mujahidin and returning them to their parents. Bishop Macram is not himself directly involved in the buying back of children, since the Church relief funds he administers are directed at relieving the shortage of food and other supplies, but he fully supports the efforts of the Christian groups working to reunite the children with their parents. “Some people say that if these organizations send a middleman to buy back these abducted children and he is paid, then the whole evil of slavery might be institutionalized. It could, it could. But the very fact that these young girls and boys are being given back to their parents and their loved ones, for me it’s worth the risk. Even the life of one child is worth it because every one of us was created in the image of God.”
What bothers him is that while western governments have voiced concerns—often through diplomatic channels about slavery, few have lodged any protests concerning the persecution of Christians in general. “There are countries touched by the issue of slavery, but not so much by the issue of Christian persecution, and I don’t know why. Is it because their Christian faith has become so weak, is it because considerations of power and money overshadow their Christian ethics and morality?” The bishop points in particular to the NGOs involved in Sudan relief efforts. “They should be standing from the rooftops crying that the Christians are being persecuted by these fundamentalist Muslims. The Arab nations won’t allow the politicians and NGOs to be clear about this. It was very easy for them to speak out against apartheid; the whole international community joined hands to punish South Africa and to tell them that apartheid is evil. But there was no religious persecution there, there was no question of Islam and Christianity. Here, they are afraid to be blunt because they think that if they do speak out they might not get a positive reaction from the Arab Islamic countries … and that is where the western nations are getting their oil.” Catholics, says Bishop Macram, should have no such reluctance. “The Church is strong. Let these Islamic fundamentalists know one thing: They can never destroy the Church. . . . Nobody can destroy the Church because it is built on Christ. We will suffer, but I am sure that after every suffering and after every crucifixion, there is always a resurrection.”
The biggest barrier to Bishop Macram’s effort is the lure of trade. Bishop Macram has been encouraged by the efforts of some members of Congress to pass legislation imposing economic and other sanctions on the Khartoum regime, and hopes that the sanctions are not watered down out of political considerations. To those who would let the desire to preserve free trade at all costs dictate their decision regarding sanctions against the government, the bishop is blunt. “Why do they say they want to stand up for human rights; why do they call themselves Christians at all? Call yourselves anything but Christians. Do not bring Christ into policies that have nothing to do with Christian love and Christian justice. They can call themselves whatever they want, but let them not blemish Christ and Christianity by appropriating the name.”
While Bishop Macram has met with numerous members of Congress and other influential figures to make them more aware of the situation in Sudan, he doesn’t see his mission as political in the least. “At times I feel like John the Baptist, a voice that cries out in the wilderness. I am not a politician. I try to avoid getting into political issues as far as I can, but when the political issues have repercussions in the area of human rights, I have the obligation to point my finger at the political system and condemn it.”
Asked what Catholics in the United States can do about the situation in Sudan, the bishop answers quickly. “Jesus taught his disciples that this type of evil is only sent away by prayer and fasting. The atrocities we have seen are diabolic; no human power alone would be able to commit them. Let the people tell their representatives that these people being persecuted and killed are Christian just as we are. If this kind of Islamic fundamentalism is not controlled in Sudan, it will spread across the world. The Christians of the United States should demand that something be done and that it be done fast. Time is short and people continue to die.”