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Supplements » The Sudan, Human Rights and an Unholy Silence (October 1999)
The Sudan, Human Rights and an Unholy Silence by David Holloway
Earlier this year a joint US/British mission team sponsored by Sharing of Ministries Abroad and CMS (the Church Mission Society) visited churches in the Southern Sudan. The Anglican Church in the Sudan had asked them to hold seminars for pastors and church leaders - the first such conference in that region for the Church for more than 10 years.
What happened? One thing the team experienced was something the Sudanese live with daily - bombing raids. Alison Barfoot reported the visit as follows:
'On February 27, a government "Antonov" bomber attacked the hospital and market area in the town of Mardi, where the church was holding [the] conference, dropping six anti-personnel bombs. Four days later, the bomber returned and dropped no fewer than 16 bombs.
The bombs were not aimed at military targets. Rather, they were aimed at the Episcopal cathedral, the Roman Catholic church, the hospital and the market - all places where civilians gather.
A 5 year old girl named Mario died that day from a piece of shrapnel that struck her head. My friends [people on the team] visited and prayed with her grieving parents trying to bring them hope in the midst of their chaos' (The Kansas City Star, 15 April 1999).
I was a missionary with CMS in the Sudan in 1964-1965, at the beginning of this genocide - for such it is. The Muslim Sudanese government in the North is engaging in its own form of ethnic cleansing against the Sudanese in the South who are non-Arab ethnic Africans, mostly Christian.
The consequence is that more people from the predominantly Christian South have already been murdered than all the victims in Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda combined. In ten years almost two million people have died and five million have been displaced, reckons Alison Barfoot. Another 2.5 million are currently at risk of starvation, kept alive only by the heroic efforts of international aid groups. 'Virtually every provision of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been violated. And yet the world stays silent.'
Nor is it just Anglicans. Roman Catholics are also being attacked. William Saunders is an American Human Rights lawyer. He met in Washington a Sudanese bishop who had come to protest about the murder and enslavement of his people (yes, Northerners sell Southerners as slaves). As a result last Christmas Saunders went out to the Sudan to be with the bishop for a pastoral visitation in the Nuba Mountains and northern Bahr el-Ghazal.
The Nuba Mountains are 'north of the south' - near the centre of the country. The government of the Sudan is trying to depopulate this area of black Nuba people and to replace them with Muslim tribes. As the US Committee for Refugees reported in December 1998, the government's aim is to force the people off their land and into 'peace camps' where they are forced to convert to Islam or starve (the government refuses to allow UN-sponsored famine relief operations to come to the Nuba Mountains).
But also in the Nuba Mountains are Muslims who are peaceful and tolerant of both the Christians and the animists in the region. From the government's perspective, therefore, they are not 'good' Muslims and so they too need to be destroyed.
Christmas 1998 in the Nuba Mountains
Writing in the journal First Things (May 1999) William Saunders tells of his experiences last Christmas. He tells how he and the bishop had to fly in secretly to avoid being spotted by Government aeroplanes.They were met by a friendly resistance soldier named Mohammed Ali, and then went from village to village where they were greeted with 'singing, dancing and drumming'. Saunders writes:
'As I witnessed their joy at the presence of their "outlawed" bishop, the words of the gospel came to mind: "Blessed are you when men hate you, and revile you, and denounce your name as criminal, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and dance for joy" (Luke 6.22-23).'
And there were water problems. On the way to visit a new school, although the rainy season had barely ended, they found a river bed where the river was already bone dry. He writes:
'Finding water is difficult in the Mountains. Though the Nuba Mountain area is the ancestral home of the Nuba people, government troops and allied Muslim tribes have forced them higher into the mountains, away from their traditional pastures and wells. (The government poisons their wells whenever they are found.) Without tools, they are forced to dig wells by hand, though sometimes they are able to use pieces of shrapnel for digging. In this river bed, the people had dug such a well. It was about five feet deep. Since both people and animals use it, it is often contaminated, and the people suffer many ailments as a result.'
When he reached the school he found it lacking 'chairs or desks; tree branches are used instead. The teachers are also in desperate need of books, paper, and pencils.'
On Christmas Day the people gathered in the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul. But ...
'... this is a cathedral like few others. It is not a building; rather, it is composed of "pillars" of living sycamore trees that offer camouflage from government planes. Beneath the trees, in a hollow, we gather with perhaps a thousand parishioners ... During the service, the bishop received a message from the resistance. They had intercepted a message from the military - the planes had been sent to bomb ... the bishop ... asked us to pray ... Luckily the planes did not find us.'
A few days later Saunders and the bishop left the Nuba Mountains for Bahr el-Ghazal. On that very day, the government bombed a Nuba village with its church and school. 'Now we must start all over again,' said the bishop. And when the government troops overran another nearby village, they abducted the mother and children of Muhammed Ali, the friendly Muslim soldier they met on arrival.
In Bahr el-Ghazal there had been no clergy in the area they were visiting for twenty years. But there were catechists. The catechists, however, are now in great need of Bibles and other books. One said, 'it has been so long, we have nearly forgotten the words.' But the catechists had been as faithful as possible. Several had been murdered, most had been hunted, some had been tortured but escaped. One of the latter told Saunders that his captors had demanded, 'Convert [to Islam], or die like Jesus Christ.' Then on 28 December 1998 Saunders and the bishop met with 'the redeemed children'.
'These were Dinka children [the Dinka are a Southern, very tall, tribe], from age nine to nineteen, who had been abducted and enslaved by Muslim militias or Muslim tribesmen, and who had either escaped or been "redeemed" from their captors for a price. Some had been abducted at ages as young as six: some had spent twelve years in slavery. Usually their parents had been killed before their eyes. All were now orphans; some had been so young when they were kidnapped that they could never find their way home; many did not know their given names. Some of the girls had been raped. All of the children had been grievously mistreated. In a scene whose horror is difficult to convey, the children showed us where each had been branded, as one would brand an animal, on the forehead or arm.'
There were seventy of these children. The church takes care of them, making sure they are clothed, fed, housed, and educated. Despite their suffering, they were radiating hope. One of the elders told Saunders, 'If we surrender to the government, we will be slaves in our own land. We have heard about human rights on the radio. Why, if there are human rights, does the world not help us?'
'Their Blood Cries Out'
In the remarkable book by Paul Marshall with Lela Gilbert, Their Blood Cries Out: The Growing Worldwide Persecution of Christians, that question is addressed.
The book makes it abundantly evident, as one reviewer A.J.Bacevich put it, that 'in an age notorious for the widespread abuse of human rights, the murder, torture, imprisonment, and victimization of Christians because they are Christians constitutes "the largest pattern of persecution in the world." Furthermore, due to apathy among believers and bias among the enlightened, this epidemic of persecution "is allowed to pass in a deafening silence".'
The book surveys the Muslim world and is careful to point out that not all Islam is violent towards Christianity, but it makes it clear that many Muslims are repressing Christians on a vast scale. Naturally it surveys the Sudan, where in the past decade 'Islamization through genocide' has caused the death of between 1.5 and 3 million Christians (so Marshall estimates); Iran, where Christians endure conditions of 'religious apartheid'; Saudi Arabia where 'Christian worship is banned' and where it is 'illegal to wear a cross or to utter a Christian prayer'; Egypt, where 'militant Islamic groups are targeting Christians for murder, assault, theft, and destruction of property'; Algeria, where violent attacks on Catholic clergy have become routine; and Pakistan, where blasphemy laws provide the rationale for 'a reign of private terror against Christians.' The book also mentions East Timor.
But it is not just Muslims that persecute the church. The former Communist world still has much hostility towards Christians - in Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and especially China, where today 'there are more Christians attending regular church worship services ... than there are in all of Western Europe combined.' It is the same elsewhere in Asia where other religions are dominant - in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Bhutan, Burma and Cambodia. 'Even in less likely quarters - in Russia, central Europe, and Latin America, where the population identifies itself as Christian - nonconformists or adherents of minority denominations find themselves subject to all manner of discrimination and abuse.'
Why is there such persecution of Christians?
Marshall makes the following comment:
'The assault on Christians is a fundamental part of the assault on human freedom itself. Many Christians are leading democracy and human-rights activists. They are also in the forefront of economic development. But perhaps more important than what they do is what they are. While usually loyal citizens, they embody an attachment to 'another King', a loyalty to a standard of spiritual allegiance apart from the political order. This fact itself denies that the state is the all-encompassing or ultimate arbiter of human life. Regardless of how the relation between God and Caesar has been expressed, it now at least means that, contra the Romans and modern totalitarians, Caesar is not God. This confession, however mute, sticks in the craw of every authoritarian regime and draws their angry and bloody response.'
Why does the world not help?
But why is there such deafening silence? In the mid-1980s there was international help for Ethiopia, then Bosnia, then Somalia, then Rwanda, then Kosovo. But why is the plight of Christians so ignored? Why is a country like the Sudan ignored - the largest country in Africa, the size of Europe? Why has East Timor been helped so late in the day?
One reason is that Christians are often ignored quite perniciously by the Western secular media and secular agencies. The Southern Sudan being particularly Christian is especially likely to be ignored. In 1994 the periodical Christianity Today reported that over 75 percent of all south Sudanese consider themselves 'born again'. And as Paul Liben says: 'Evidence abounds that within all Christian groups, ranging from Catholics and Anglicans to nondenominational movements, genocide has brought not abandonment of faith, but renewal. In the South Sudan, Christian martyrdom has, as well, drawn Christians of all traditions closer together.' But there is almost a news blackout as far as the main media is concerned.
Among secular media elites there seems to be a trend of opposition to the Christian faith. This is perverse but a real problem. This trend could be seen during the bombing in Kosovo and Serbia earlier this year. The Western media often seemed to demonize all 'Serbs' - Christians together with Serb Marxists and the men of violence. And that was in spite of the fact that Patriarch Pavle, leader of Serbia's Orthodox Christians, had been a voice of opposition to Slobodan Milosevic and took part in pro-democracy demonstrations in the early 1990s.
The trend is also seen in the BBC reports on East Timor which almost never mention in news bulletins that the murder of East Timoreans has been the murder of Christians. Of course, the situation is not just a religious war. But the religious dimension is not irrelevant. As Marshall writes: 'the struggle is largely political in the sense of focusing on land and independence, rather than being overtly religious. Nevertheless, the result is that a largely Christian territory (about 80 percent of the population is Catholic) [has been] in major opposition to a largely Muslim government.' But religion has been a 'spark' in the violence as Marshall documents.
Then take the Sudan itself. Marshall reports on a North American camera crew in the Sudan not so long ago who were 'asked if the massacre of Christians would itself make their network come to the Sudan. They replied, "No! only the issue of slavery would draw TV companies' interest."'
Nor are some of the secular human rights organizations much better than the news media. Amnesty International, for example, has produced some excellent reports on the Sudan. But they give little attention to the religious dimension. 'Its Sudan: The Tears of Orphans says, "Bigots on all sides, Muslims and Christians alike, have exploited religion, making it a significant factor in the continued fighting." This statement is literally true, but it gives a distorted picture of a conflict involving Christian resistance to a fervently Islamicizing government.' Marshall points out that it is 'a conflict which has, by one side, been pronounced a jihad, which involves widespread forced conversion to Islam, sometimes on penalty of death.' So 'religion is no mere veneer.'
Why does the church not help?
If 'the world' does not help because the media and secular organizations have refused to give proper publicity to Christian persecution, why cannot the church help?
In 1995, Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal. He said that the 'evidence of growing and large-scale persecution of evangelicals and Christian converts is overwhelming.' He challenged American Jews like himself not to be silent in the face of 'persecutions eerily parallel to those committed by Adolf Hitler.' Horowitz then wrote to 150 denominational mission boards: 'I am writing because I am pained and puzzled at the relative lack of interest shown by many within the Christian community of fellow Christians who are now increasingly persecuted - as Christians and for their beliefs alone - throughout the world.'
What is the trouble?
Why do not evangelicals make this a priority for their prayers and political lobbying? One reason is the lack of information. They are too often dependent on the secular media.
Another reason is, as one Mission leader has said, '[Western] Christians have no experience of persecution or suffering for their faith which remotely resembles the experiences of many of our overseas brothers and sisters. It is difficult to empathize ... many, many, many Christians refuse to believe what is reported because it is so far outside their experience.'
Yet another reason is that too many Christians have been caught up in the 'therapeutic culture'. This is all part of the 'me' generation. So the Christian faith is seen to be about 'inner peace and joy' and being 'comfortable with yourself'. There is a preoccupation with emotional well-being and with a gospel that 'Christ died for your problems' rather than 'your sins'. 'The subject of persecuted Christians,' writes Marshall, 'is jarring to an obsession with personal peace.' It is not that an inward focus is wrong; it is wrong if this is the only focus while the desperate need of persecuted Christians is ignored.
Then many liberal churches since the 1960s have virtually given up on the Christian faith. With a relativism that makes all religions equal, openness to, and dialogue with, other religions is a primary value. 'One of the results' says Marshall, 'has been a reluctance to raise anything which might damage peaceful relations with conversation partners. This also leads to an animus against people engaged in seeking to propagate their faith, with an implication that such troublemakers might deserve what they get. This means that [such liberals] don't seem to like evangelism and are not very sympathetic to those who suffer for it.' This is shocking. It is not surprising if such people are more likely to be supportive of gay or animal rights than of the genuine human rights of those whose lives are in danger for their faith in Christ.
What must we do? We must pray, keep informed, lobby when and where we can and always keep in mind Hebrews 13.3:
Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering