Bishop Macram Max Gassis, 72, shepherds the Diocese of El Obeid, the largest of nine dioceses in Sudan.
The war-ravaged country, 10 times the size of Great Britain, is divided religiously and ethnically between the largely sub-Saharan African and Christian south and the Arab Muslim north, which wields power from the capital in Khartoum.
Until the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement halted a long civil war, more than 2 million Sudanese died as the north savaged the south. Bishop Gassis himself was forced into exile for testifying about Khartoum’s depredations before the United Nations, the U.S. Congress and the European Union. Since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement took effect, he has been able to freely travel in his diocese, journeying from his home base in neighboring Kenya. He also travels abroad in order to educate fellow Christians about the suffering Church in Sudan.
From Jan. 9-15, the country will hold a referendum to decide whether the south becomes a separate nation. But will the north allow the oil-rich south to secede, despite an agreement to share the revenue from the resource that provides 98% of the country’s non-foreign aid wealth? Will the war re-erupt and Christians suffer anew?
While visiting America in late November, Bishop Gassis spoke about Sudan’s uncertain fate.
What occasioned your latest visit to the United States?
I traveled here to celebrate a special Mass at EWTN. It was said with the intention of encouraging viewers to pray for a peaceful solution to the situation in southern Sudan. I launched a financial appeal during the homily, and asked for special prayers for Sudan in particular, the suffering Church in general — especially in Iraq. And I also traveled to America for some medical check-ups.
You are a Christian of Arab ancestry, correct?
I am a mixture of races, actually. Even the former private secretary of Pope John Paul II [Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz] asked me whether I’m an Indian. I was raised bilingual: Arabic and English. My mother was Protestant; my father was Catholic. I had a very ecumenical upbringing. But I think my vocation came through my mother. It was she who brought me up to read holy Scripture. It was she who fulfilled the promise she made to my father to baptize her children as Catholics and have them attend Catholic schools.
Anyhow, when asked what I am, I say I am a Sudanese. My racial background shouldn’t play a role in my life as a shepherd, anyway. As a shepherd, I abide by my vocation to care for my flock.
Please give a large-picture backgrounder on the upcoming referendum on whether the south of Sudan should form a country separate from the government based in Khartoum.
Well, everyone is entitled to his personal point of view, and here is mine. I was happy when the CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement] was signed in 2005, but as time elapsed, I was thinking about whether it was really a comprehensive peace agreement. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t comprehensive. Why not?
First, because it was signed by two belligerent parties: the government of Sudan and the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army]. These two belligerent groups signed a peace treaty between themselves. My question is: Where are the grassroots groups in this? What role did these grassroots groups play in the signing? What about other political parties, tribal chiefs, and where is the Church’s role in this matter? I, for one, gave up my life, security, time, health, even my personal funds to become a globetrotter in order to focus the international community’s attention on what is happening in my country. I played this role because I am my people’s shepherd and felt I have got to do it. I didn’t hesitate to point my finger at all these violations of human rights and the dignities of all people. And I did it unsparingly, with generosity.
Where does the Church stand in Sudan right now?
I’ve come to see that in this CPA the issue of religion was not given in-depth consideration. And that hurts. We bishops were not consulted. But our pastoral letters are indicative that the Church is very diligent — the Church was correcting, teaching and encouraging, then and always. But where did they put us in the discussions in this interim period? But, for me, it was not comprehensive. It was lacking.
No. 2, I’m considering the issue of whether the south Sudanese should secede or not. The people must decide. As Church leaders, I abhor bishops telling people what to do politically. Our role is to guide people to make a sane decision for their future. Self-determination is their right. We as bishops must guide them — open their eyes so as to make a right decision.
What challenges would confront a new south Sudanese nation, should it come to pass?
I hope people will consider that a new nation cannot have a peaceful life based on tribalism — based on a lack of honesty, transparency; based on nepotism. How can a new nation be able to face these challenges? If people decide to secede and these issues I raised continue to be a problem, then the very people who voted for secession will be first to say, “Crucify them!” So that’s why I am asking for prayers. If we should happen to have a new country, it must be based upon healthy, sound principles. Because otherwise it won’t be there for long. Actually, I was more keen that our people in the south — in the Nuba Mountains and other marginalized places — should be granted self-determination. They should have been put together with the rest of the south [as delineated by the CPA]. The blood of our Nuba soldiers was shed in southern Sudan. And nobody should deny that. They helped liberate us from the army of Khartoum.
So I don’t see why — the justifications for excluding them from the right to self-determination through a referendum together with all Sudan ... that exclusion is false. As the bishop of the Nuba Mountains, I feel a bit depressed because of this situation. I don’t know where we’re going to go. And I do hope that man proposes and God disposes, and we let God play his role for the betterment of Sudan.
You have been very outspoken about the plight of Christians in Sudan. What does this referendum mean for them?
Should the southern Sudanese vote to secede, I don’t know what the plight of Christians in northern Sudan will be. To throw them in the lion’s den would not be right. What will happen to Christians and Church leaders in the north? We must remember that many Christians fled north to find shelter from the war. Now what will happen to them? There are just so many questions still up in the air. The situation is hazy, to say the least. We need to ask God for wisdom.
Regarding the Christian leadership in Sudan, Catholic as well as Protestant: What are their concerns and feelings about the whole political situation?
The Anglican bishops opted to tell their faithful to vote for secession. We Catholic bishops won’t determine for our own people whether to go left or right — even if individual bishops might be of a different opinion. But individual opinion will not prevent us from saying as one body that we will not dictate how people vote: We propose, but we do not impose.
How many Catholics are there in Sudan?
In a war situation with so many people moving north and south and registering their new residency or not, it’s so difficult at times to pinpoint how many Catholics there are in Sudan. We Catholics are not a meager minority, however. Sudan is 55% Muslim and 45% not, both Christian and animist. So there are a total of 6 to 7 million Christians. We Catholics are a majority of them. There are 13 Catholic bishops in Sudan, nine dioceses in all. My diocese is the largest, in terms of area.
What are the dangers involved with the upcoming referendum? And what is the worst-case scenario?
The worst-case scenario is conflict over oil. This is one major issue that should be taken into consideration. And there are many other things, too. Sudan is a mixed salad of races, languages, traditions, cultures. We are afraid of diversity. We need to understand that diversity doesn’t impoverish a nation; diversity enriches a nation. As long as we think, or as we used to think, that one religion, one culture, one tradition will do it: This will not work. Is secession our only alternative? Either secession or unity? Have we explored all possibilities? I don’t think so. And I don’t say, “Let’s have unity because I myself was born in Khartoum.” Rather, I say, “Let us have unity because I’m a bishop and look to secure the good of my people.” If secession is a good solution, then why not? But have the future be built on solid, not sandy, foundation.
The U.S. has made the Sudanese national government an offer based on the assumption that the south will vote for independence: If the north does not take military action against the south, the U.S. has offered to take Sudan off its list of state sponsors of terrorism. The question is: Does Sudanese President Gen. Omar al-Bashir’s government think this diplomatic offer is sufficient? Being on the U.S. terrorism list has a lot of disadvantages, but the south has a lot of oil that the north covets. What would keep Khartoum from asserting its desire to suppress southern Sudanese independence?
It is logical that America should make such an offer. But I don’t like blackmailing. How will you rid Sudan of terrorism by saying if you, the government in Khartoum, let the south go, then we will forgive you of all your sins? This idea of letting you off the hook if he lets the south go is insane. The culpability is still there.
China is one of Sudan’s top arms suppliers. It also buys 70% of Sudanese oil. The Chinese have said they are anxious to see a stable Sudan, but it is not clear how China may — or will —use its considerable influence with Khartoum to achieve this. Thoughts?
China is just searching for its benefit and advantage. Nothing more; nothing less. If they see unity guarantees are in its interest, they’ll stand by it. If they see they can work a better policy with an independent south, they’ll go with it. I don’t trust what China says. The biggest shareholder [of Sudan’s oil reserves] was, in the beginning, a Canadian company in Calgary. And we told them that they should stop working in order to get this oil. But they’re still there. When it comes to Africa, it seems every nation regards its self-interest foremost.
Have conditions for southern Sudanese Christians improved since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which made southern Sudan a semiautonomous state?
Yes, they’ve improved, not only in southern Sudan, but also in the Nuba Mountains, which are a buffer zone.
But why were the Sudanese in the Nuba Mountains excluded from the CPA negotiations for southern independence?
I don’t know why. Even Church leaders were not invited to the meetings to decide the CPA. The area of the Nuba Mountains is especially important because the Church is free to function there under the protection of the SPLA, and we’ve done so much work there to aid the people: providing food, digging wells, building a hospital and schools from kindergarten through secondary school so that children are able to attend university. There are no more aerial bombardments! No artillery!
From a militant Islamic point of view, do differences among Christians make any difference? Say, whether one is a Catholic, Coptic or Anglican?
I think the Catholic Church really stands out as the leading Church in Sudan — and the national government knows that. And this government always waits to see what the Catholic Church will say or think upon a given issue. We carry the weight more than anybody else. Yet the brunt of persecution is borne not only by Catholics, but shared with Protestants. But the persecution is also racially related, wrought by Arab Muslims who also bomb their fellow Muslims in the Nuba Mountains who are not Arab.
Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.
Information: To learn more about Bishop Gassis and how to help the Church in Sudan, visit BishopGassis.org