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Sudan’s Islamic Government & Its Christian Citizens
by Faith McDonnell
Since gaining independence in 1956, Sudan has been plagued by civil war, the result of the Sudanese government’s desire to Islamize and Arabize all of Sudan. This so-called “Sudanization” of Sudan disregards the “Africa-ness” of much of the country: the multiplicity of languages and dialects, the Sudanese with black skin, the traditional religions of the Nilotic region, and the Christian identity of Sudan that reaches back beyond the Christians of southern Sudan, beyond the ancient Christian kingdoms of Nubia, beyond the conversion of the court official of Queen Candace of Meroe, to the prophecies of Isaiah 18, Ezekiel 29, and Zephaniah 2.
When interviewed by the Episcopal News Service in 1999, southern Sudanese politician and human rights lawyer Abel Alier spelled out the intentions of the current regime. “The Sudanese government is on an Islamic crusade,” he said, explaining that it has long been the agenda of radical Islamists to see if a country of varied racial, cultural, and religious populations could be totally Islamized and Arabized. The “Sudanese experiment,” well-funded by the Arab world, would be followed by the rest of Africa, and beyond.
Days of Destruction
The only years of relative peace until the current ceasefire were those between 1972 and 1983, when the Addis Ababa Agreement created a separate Southern Regional Government subordinate to the central government in Khartoum. Islamist hardliners in the north were unhappy with these concessions, however, and Hassan al Turabi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian-based terrorist group that spawned Hamas, gained influence in President Jaafer Numeiri’s government with the objective of institutionalizing sharia (Islamic law) throughout Sudan.
During these years, substantial quantities of oil were discovered in southern Sudan. Southerners believed that the government intended to rob them of their natural resources—and the brutal treatment in later years of those living near the oil proved them correct. The Khartoum regime wanted the southerners’ land, but did not want the people.
On September 8, 1983, President Numeiri announced the imposition of new sharia provisions in the criminal code, to be applied to all Sudanese as Turabi had wished. Full sharia includes such punishments as cross amputations (cutting off the left hand and right foot, for instance), stonings, floggings, discrimination against non-Muslims (for instance, the testimony of a non-Muslim man is worth only half that of a Muslim man), and death sentences for apostasy and blasphemy. Previously, Islamic law had been confined to its family law provisions for Muslims in the north.
“All Southerners were shocked by this development—the abrogation of the September Laws has been one of the unbending demands of Southern resistance ever since 1983,” wrote the authors of Day of Devastation, Day of Contentment in 2000. Christians
protested against the imposition of Islamic laws on non-Muslims, feeling that Christians were treated more harshly. Church leaders protested against the cruelty of many of the punishments—which they said degraded the victim, elevated extreme punishment above the rehabilitation of the offender, and “dulled the moral and human feelings of the nation.”
Southern Sudan resisted the imposition of sharia and has paid the high price of that resistance with the blood of its people. Military resistance took the shape of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), formed in 1983 under former army colonel Dr. John Garang de Mabior. But the government did not just engage in combat with the SPLA. Numeiri’s successors ensured that the entire south was engulfed in war. And the National Islamic Front (NIF), which took power in Khartoum through a military coup in 1989, has carried out relentless and horrific warfare against its own civilian population under the banner of jihad.
According to Dr. Millard Burr, in his report Quantifying Genocide in Southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, published by the US Committee for Refugees in 1998, the deaths resulting from the Sudan Air Force attacks on civilian targets are almost impossible to determine “because the aerial sorties number in the thousands, the bombs dropped probably can be calculated in the tens of thousands, and the southern Sudanese villages attacked numbered in the hundreds.” Church buildings, schools, hospitals, and marketplaces in southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains were common targets.
In addition to those who died from the bombing, tens of thousands of civilians have died as an indirect result of the attacks, whose main purpose was to terrorize the villagers and drive them from their homes. Once displaced, they have died from disease and starvation as they have fled from place to place. In recent years, bolstered by money from oil, Sudan has used more sophisticated bombers and helicopter gunships for these attacks.
One of the most common weapons of terror used by Khartoum against black African Sudanese has been the arming of Arab militias to conduct “scorched earth” attacks and slave raids. This has been a convenient way to “clear the land” for oil development. Oil companies who are in business with the government of Sudan have been given proof that their partnership was supporting the killing and enslaving of thousands of innocent civilians, but have remained unmoved.
It is not surprising that the NIF has promoted slavery—the Arabic word for “black” ( abid) is the same as that for “slave” and, more revealingly, for “filth .” Tens of thousands of women and children from southern Sudan have been taken in slave raids over the years. They have seen their homes burned, their men killed, and their animals slaughtered. They have been gang-raped and mutilated. They have been branded, kept in pens like animals, given food not fit for animals, and treated as less than animals.
Tiny children taken in slave raids have grown up (when they have survived) with no love or affection whatsoever. They have been forced to take Arabic names, to speak Arabic, and to convert to Islam. “Masters” who have been displeased with them have beaten them or chopped off their limbs. (Francis Bok, who escaped after ten years of slavery, has recalled his life as a slave in his book Escape from Slavery, published last year by St. Martin’s Press.) Other abducted children have been held in “vocational training camps” where they are forced to convert to Islam and are pressed into military service against their own people. Former UN Special Rapporteur for Sudan, Gaspar Biro, reported that boys as young as eleven were sent to the front of the offensive.
In some cases children escaped from attacks waged on their villages. About 300,000 of them, mostly young boys under the age of ten, trekked over 400 miles to Ethiopia. Some 16,000 of these boys finally ended up in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. These are the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” who can be found across the United States.
The government of Sudan has also been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands by starvation. Food has been used as a weapon of war, exacerbating problems already created by famine, drought, floods, and infestations. At critical junctures, the government barred all food aid from being delivered to starving civilians, and UN-affiliated relief groups have complied. At times, only independent NGOs (non-governmental organizations), mostly Christian ministries, have defied the bans and brought food to the starving. Lines of desperate people waiting for food have then become targets of bombing raids. Government troops garrisoned in the south ate while the civilians starved. At other times, food aid was offered only to those willing to convert to Islam and live in government “peace camps.”
Genocide also came in the form of virulent persecution of Christians in Sudan. Southern Sudanese have reported whole villages crucified. In other cases, villagers were rounded up in churches and burned to death. Individual Christians, Protestant and Catholic, clergy and lay, have been tortured and killed.
In northern Sudan, Christian worship has been severely restricted at times. Churches and schools in the north have been bulldozed or confiscated. In spite of the government’s efforts to wipe out Christianity, though, the church in Sudan has grown in strength and number. Muslims have been drawn to Christ by the courageous and joyful faith of the Christians. The Sudanese church has emerged as the only truly functioning element of governance in civil society, and is a stabilizing and civilizing influence on the SPLA.
While the world has stood by these many years, over two million black African Christians and others from central and southern Sudan have died, and about six million have been displaced. Even as the government negotiated for peace with the SPLA, it sponsored attacks in southern and western Sudan.
In recent weeks, government-backed militias have devastated the Shilluk people in southern Sudan’s Upper Nile province. The government has employed Arab fighters on horseback, aerial bombardment, and slavery to exterminate the African Muslims of Darfur in the same way it did against African Christians of other regions. Dr. Eric Reeves of Smith College commented in Freedom Now News (May 4, 2004) on the outrage finally being expressed by the international community:
The veil over Khartoum’s genocidal war against the African peoples of Sudan has finally been lifted, and both news reporting and opinion pages are struggling to come to grips with what is all too clearly the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis. And in struggling to comprehend this crisis, the news media must confront the terrible silence that has been their primary response to the regime’s campaign of systematic human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
Sudanese have wondered why those who intervened for Bosnia and Kosovo have not intervened for them. The persecuted church in Sudan has often felt alone, suffering and dying for the sake of Christ. “Where are the people who brought us the Cross?” they have asked.
Indifference and apathy have played a role in perpetuating Sudan’s genocide. A standard cry of Sudan demonstrators has been “Two million die, and the world looks away!” Elitist proponents of moral equivalence who insist that “both sides” are equally guilty have caused delays and weakened resolve among those who might help, including US policymakers on Sudan. Apologists for the Islamist regime have used accusations of Islamophobia and Arabophobia in an attempt to intimidate anyone who speaks the truth about the atrocities committed by the regime.
Yet another reason the Sudanese government has been able to pursue its “experiment” for so long is that its very audacity makes the violence and horror it perpetrates inconceivable to most people. Elie Wiesel said of the Holocaust that the enemy pushed “violence and cruelty and sadism and brutality and evil to its grotesque limits” and “counted on the disbelief of the world and the victim.”
In the case of Sudan, the government has helped ensure that disbelief, first, by making much of Sudan inaccessible to outsiders, and then, when that was no longer feasible, by a “charm offensive” in which it has portrayed itself as reasonable, devout, and longing for peace. In addition to outright deceit, it has couched its agenda in neutral, inoffensive terms, like “the Sudanese experiment,” which resonate with outsiders—secular diplomats, scholars, and even some Christian leaders.
But indifference, apathy, and ignorance have not been the only response to the Sudanese genocide. Advocates, Christian ministries, human rights groups, and some relief agencies (who are not married to “neutrality”) have continually been the voice of the suffering Sudanese. Many have risked their lives to bring food and medicine into restricted areas. Others have been slandered and denounced for purchasing the freedom of many of those taken into slavery. Still others have pressed for changes in US policy on Sudan, to help end the genocide and bring about a just peace.
Since the mid-nineties, activists have been mobilizing people to get involved. Letters to Congress and the President, petition drives, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and other forms of activism have increased people’s awareness and encouraged legislation and other policy responses on Sudan. Members of Congress have visited Sudan; held hearings on slavery, human rights atrocities, and other aspects of the Sudanese genocide; and sponsored legislation on Sudan. Activist groups and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom have urged President Bush to make Sudan a priority in his foreign policy. These efforts have resulted in additional assistance to the suffering Sudanese, the Sudan Peace Act of 2002, and the naming of a special envoy for Sudan, whose work was critical in birthing the current negotiations.
As a result, on May 26, 2004, at the peace talks in Naivasha, Kenya, the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) finally signed three protocols—one on power-sharing and the others on disputed areas—preliminary to a final peace agreement. Peace in Africa’s largest country may be closer now than it has been in decades. “This is superb. We have been waiting for the agreement for a long time. We are really tired of war,” Sudanese Catholic Bishop Joseph Abangite Gasi told Ecumenical News International. But celebration is tempered by death and displacement in western Sudan and Upper Nile.
The parties are expected to sign a final agreement in August (as of press time, mid-June). However, even when an agreement is signed, it will only mark the beginning of the long and vital task of building a just and sustainable peace in Sudan. Khartoum’s conduct throughout the peace process—posturing, violating the ceasefire with impunity, reneging on agreed-to points—and Western toleration of its behavior are discouraging signs. This has been a familiar pattern. Sudan’s history is littered with the government’s broken agreements.
After all these years of various governments relentlessly executing their “experiment,” those who have stood against them remain resistant and hopeful. Success in the peace talks between the government and the SPLA, and the tranquility of a ceasefire, have inspired optimism. Sudanese from the diaspora are showing up in their home areas, and plans are underway in the south to build the New Sudan.
Although the sweet fragrance of peace is in the air, the stench of death from Darfur and Upper Nile is a sobering reminder that many problems remain beyond a North–South peace agreement. The United States must remain firm in its resolve to see the attacks on Darfur and Upper Nile ended, and to ensure that the peace in Sudan is real, just, and enduring. This can only happen if those who care about the courageous people of Sudan stand alongside them and press for justice.
Recommended websites: www.csi-int.ch; www.iabolish.com; www.persecution.org; www.ird-renew.org/liberty; www.servantsheartrelief.org; and www.freeworldnow.blogspot.com.
Recommended book: Roland Werner, William Anderson, and Andrew Wheeler, Day of Devastation, Day of Contentment (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2000).
Faith McDonnell is Director of the Church Alliance for a New Sudan (CANS) at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org) in Washington, D.C.