July will mark the first anniversary of the creation of the Republic of South Sudan. Its birth was accompanied by a comprehensive peace deal with the Khartoum-based Islamic government of the north.
Yet disputes have continued with the Khartoum government in the north, and the Nuba Mountains are the current conflict’s focal point.
Bishop Macram Max Gassis’ El Obeid Diocese includes the states of Kordofan — in which the Nuba Mountains are found — and Darfur. He has already started to question just how comprehensive that original peace deal actually was.
“Is it comprehensive?” he asked. “They haven’t even demarcated the borders! How can we call it comprehensive when this agreement was signed by an Islamic regime and a liberation movement — where is the Church?
“We played an important role. Personally, I have given my life to travel the world briefing countries on the situation. I have put my family at risk and even my life. Where is the Church in that agreement — why were we not part and parcel of the talks? What about the elders and the heads of tribes? It is only between the two belligerent parties, but they signed something labeled ‘comprehensive.’ I doubt it was comprehensive, and I’m sure people are now questioning where that agreement on the borders is.”
The Register spoke to Bishop Gassis during a visit to London to lobby Parliament to put pressure on the region’s warring parties to agree to a ceasefire and allow in unrestricted humanitarian aid. South Sudan is a region primarily of Christian and animistic peoples, while Islam predominates in the north.
He said the aim of his visit “is to highlight the tragedy which is taking place in the Nuba Mountains.”
“It is geographically a buffer zone between north Sudan and South Sudan,” he stated. “At the moment, the Nuba are going through excruciating suffering because of the constant aerial bombardment by Khartoum. The regime of the Islamic government of Khartoum is bombing our innocent people, and, as usual, the first victims are children, women and the elderly.
“Bombing the people has a double effect: first, maiming and killing our people; secondly, frightening our people so that they do not farm, meaning there is no food in the area. In the meantime, Khartoum refuses to open corridors to allow relief to go to the people and save their lives.”
Bishop Gassis said that this opening of corridors for relief is the second aim, with the third being “to ask our friends — Britain, the U.S., Norway — who played a vital role in bringing about the comprehensive peace agreement, to join hands with countries like Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia to put pressure on Khartoum to sit down with the liberation movement of the Nuba Mountains and find a peaceful solution.”
“This issue of popular consultation is killing the people of the Nuba Mountains,” he continued. “The war is still there in Kordofan and Abyei. We don’t know what Khartoum wants to do. They think that now they have lost the south and its oil, they don’t want to lose the oil of Abyei — which is actually in the south — and Darfur and the minerals and the oils of Kordofan.”
Asked about the impact the current hostilities are having, Bishop Gassis replied that the people of the Nuba Mountains are very “scared.”
He asserted that the majority of the people “are still living in fear and desperation. They are living in caves and eating leaves from the forest. They eat only once a day. With the lack of food, there is hunger. But that is only the first step; the second is malnourishment, and then after that, there will be starvation.”
The bishop said, “We need prayers, and we ask for them. I would like to ask our friends in the U.S. in how many dioceses and parishes the words ‘Sudan’ or ‘Nuba people’ are included in the prayer of the faithful. This is a devil that should be cast out by prayers and fasting; there is no other way.”
The chances are that most people have little understanding of what is going on between Sudan and South Sudan. There is always the hint of a religious aspect, but this is rarely made clear in secular reports. Because he is there, Bishop Gassis sees firsthand what is going on.
Despite this, Bishop Gassis, who lived in exile 1989-2005, believes that the Church can play a vital role in rebuilding society in the area.
“Whenever we have written our pastoral [letters] … we have always said we are ready to offer our time and energy to bring about a just peace for Sudan,” he asserted. “We did this because as a bishops’ conference we have been talking to the international community. Personally, I saw Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and spoke to the U.S. Congress and Senate; for five consecutive years, I addressed the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission in Geneva. We did not leave one stone unturned.
“We tried to pave the way — religion does not build a nation. There is a proverb we say: ‘Religion is for God, and the country is for all.’ Let us live by this dictum. We played an important role through the education in our schools, too.
“Even the Muslims who studied in our schools come out with a broad mind, horizon and vision. Isn’t that something very fundamental in preparing people to live together?”
James Kelly is a columnist for
The Universe and a researcher
at the University of London.