WASHINGTON — In the 1980s, when Bishop Macram Max Gassis was appointed to head the Diocese of El Obeid, Sudan, he found a people devastated by a grinding civil war and brutal oppression.
The diocese covers almost half of Sudan — the 10th largest nation in the world by area. Bishop Gassis’s flock had a difficult time getting things like education and clean water.
Three decades later, as Bishop Gassis welcomes his Coadjutor Bishop Michael Didi Adgum Mangoria, formerly a priest of the Archdiocese of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, his people no longer have reason to believe that Providence passed them by. The diocese is now home to what human-rights activists describe as a vibrant “civilization” thriving within a nation that remains a battleground for radical Islam.
“Bishop Gassis is a great visionary who has catalyzed and overseen a massive infrastructure building project of essential services for the impoverished and persecuted Christians, animists and Muslims of central Sudan,” said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Washington, D.C.’s Hudson Institute.
Shea lauded the bishop for building a Christian civilization “on the front line of radical Islam. Sudan’s President Bashir was recently indicted by the World [International] Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur in Sudan’s west.”
In 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement halted the country’s brutal civil war, improving conditions in Bishop Gassis’ diocese, which is only 1.6% Catholic. The coadjutor arrives as Sudan braces for the long-awaited, potentially explosive 2011 referendum, which will decide whether the south secedes from the north of the country.
A Country Divided
The cessation of hostilities has allowed Bishop Gassis to freely travel in his diocese, but he acknowledged that violence might return with dreadful force no matter what the referendum’s outcome.
“After many years, I was invited to come back, but I will keep Nairobi as my base of operations. I don’t know if things will be solved civilly or if we will go back to the gun. I make no decisions until I see what will happen after the 2011 referendum,” he said in an interview during a recent trip to Washington. “If my offices are in Sudan and something goes wrong, I won’t be able to help my people.”
Long experience with political instability in Sudan encourages such prudence, and the bishop expressed frustration that a “spiritual shepherd” can be targeted as a “political enemy.”
In Sudan, he observes, “ethnicity plays an important role in fomenting violations of human rights, and a creed leads to violation of human rights.” In the past, he has condemned laws that “render non-Muslims second-class citizens.”
Many international observers agree that hostilities could erupt again whether or not the southerners vote to secede. The 2005 peace agreement includes stipulations for the merging of the armed forces, improved access to jobs, and equal sharing of oil revenues. Islamic law will remain in the north. In the south, the elected assembly will decide the future of the Shariah.
If independence is rejected, Khartoum’s National Islamic Front-dominated government may conclude that it has won the right to reinstitute oppression. A vote for independence could provoke the north to take military action, in part, to maintain control of the oil fields in the south. Experts also question whether the south’s own local government is capable of meeting the people’s needs and tamping down rampant corruption.
Still, whatever the future holds, Bishop Gassis welcomes the arrival of his coadjutor. Bishop Gassis, 72, has battled health problems for years and is now insulin-dependent following cancer treatment. His episcopal responsibilities would overwhelm many younger men, and yet he still plans to stay engaged with fundraising for the diocese’s ongoing development needs.
“It’s about time for someone who is young,” he said. “I will be there to help him. I’ll be the father who brings the food to the family. He can shepherd the diocese, and I will take care to be the breadwinner for ongoing projects.”
Born and raised in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital and a majority-Muslim city, the bishop is an Arab Christian. After high school, he joined the Comboni Fathers, a storied missionary order founded in Sudan, and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in Europe and the United States.
“The bishop’s personal history is quite remarkable. He has his finger on the pulse of Sudan and that has made him an effective Church leader,” observed Steve Wagner, who recently accompanied the bishop to his diocese. “The bishop might not put it that way, but he is defending Christianity and the right to conscience in Sudan.”
That glowing assessment is shared by many human-rights activists working in the region. John Eibner, CEO of Christian Solidarity International USA, a Christian human-rights organization working in the region, credits the bishop with educating the world about the revival of slavery in Sudan.
“In the early 1990s, Bishop Gassis and other leaders made us aware that Khartoum was arming Arab militias to raid southern villages and steal women, children and livestock. The women and children become slaves,” said Eibner, whose organization has helped to buy back the freedom of the slaves. “It’s estimated that over 100,000 people were enslaved.”
One of the few credible eyewitnesses to Khartoum’s revival of slavery, among other depredations, Bishop Gassis testified before the U.N. Human Rights Commission, the U.S. Congress and the European Union, provoking Khartoum to issue a warrant for his arrest — a move that forced him into exile.
“But he never stopped,” noted Shea. “His voice helped stir Congressmen Frank Wolf and Don Payne, Senator Sam Brownback, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to take up the plight of central and south Sudan.”
The bishop’s global campaign led President George W. Bush to make Sudan a foreign-policy priority, said Shea. In 2002 the U.S. government declared that 2 million southerners had been killed by the government during the civil war and accused Khartoum of genocide. That action helped fuel negotiations leading to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
‘To Give Hope’
“My vision has been to give hope to people who lived in isolation and continual war,” said Bishop Gassis. “When people live in a battlefield, they are living in insecurity. The Church joined them and gave them strength and hope.
“We gave them a vision: The war is an evil, but we can get something good from the war,” he added. “We managed to go to areas that the government would have blocked in peacetime. We were able to do good during a period of isolation and uncertainty. This is the grace.”
Where there was once little more than scattered outcroppings of small round huts set amid bare plains and mountains, wells now provide access to clean water, hospitals and schools are open to all believers, and missionary compounds have been built for teachers, physicians and nurses. The Missionaries of Charity, among other religious orders, have been drawn to the diocese, eager to reach out to the dispossessed, including former slaves struggling to rebuild their lives.
The schools and hospitals were established despite ongoing religious persecution, unpredictable aerial bombardments, and scant financial and logistical resources.
Inevitably, one of the fruits of Bishop Gassis’ labors may be to show religious minorities that their future lies with the south — the place where they can practice their religion freely.
“Our schools are open for everybody, irrespective of tribe, creed or affiliation to any group of people,” said the bishop. “These are all our children, and we should not make distinctions.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Washington.