“After they kill the men and older boys, they take the women and put them in corrals.

“The women stay there during the day and then are gang raped every night … and the methods they use are too horrible [to describe].”

Bill Saunders, Sudan Relief and Rescue founder, is speaking of some of the least-known victims of the Sudan government's “holy war” of ethnic cleansing, enslavement, torture, rape and starvation against its own Christian population in central and southern Sudan. “Too horrible” is very certainly an apt description of the inhumanities the Sudan government is perpetrating right now upon the precious children of God in its care. But it is a horror that must be faced by the rest of the world — including us.

While the U.S. Catholic bishops, the U.S. government and others have made some initial strides in turning back this tide of brutality, the actions so far taken are only a very modest beginning. So much more can be done to reach out and directly assist these suffering members of our Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, with whom we are in communion.

Bombings and murders are principal tactics in Sudan's strategy of ethnic cleansing. Those who survive are targeted for the soul's slow death from the inside out. Government authorities understand well what institutions nourish the human spirit. So Catholic churches, schools and relief organizations are primary bombing targets — whether inhabited or not. For example, just after Christmas 1999, the government bombed a school full of children in the Nuba Mountains. This past November, the government bombed a school in Panlit where formerly enslaved children received care. And spontaneous, unannounced bombings regularly communicate the government's distaste for the relief work of heroes like Bishop Macram Max Gassis, who operated out of the schools.

Bishop Gassis, exiled in Kenya from his people, now tends to his suffering flock in secret. He celebrates Mass in a “sycamore cathedral” below the trees, transporting as many relief supplies as he can to persecuted families. He provides the pastoral care and counseling that are so acutely needed to hold despair at bay. He cares for around 1,200 children formerly redeemed from slavery. While he experiences many triumphs, the government is well supplied and strategic in its thinking. The regime will not allow relief flights into the area. They torture and kill catechists. The government encourages the enslavement of children and systematic rape of women to ensure the slow degradation of the body and soul among those escaping death. There is some amount of ghastly wisdom in the government's knowledge of how to affect the death of the human soul.

What the world doesn't know, and what we aren't doing, is holding up solutions. The scale of the horror is larger than most know. The death toll alone is higher than all the victims in Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda combined. Yet international attention has been slight and relief funds frugal. Why?

These children of God are suffering.

For the many times as I've asked this question, I've gotten only two responses: because it's in Africa, not Europe, and because of Sudan's oil, “the golden calf,” as Bishop Gassis has dubbed it.

Perhaps the eyes of some glaze over when the name of Africa arises. Perhaps some have come to believe that such vicious hegemony and cruelty is inevitable among and between Africa's tribal peoples. If indeed our perspective is colored by such thinking, it is time to think again. These children of God, many devout Catholics among them, are suffering martyrdoms as merciless as any throughout Christian history. We either answer Christ's own African-accented cries — whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me — or we pretend not to hear his voice. As soon as we know what's happening, our path is clear.

The second international consideration is oil. While the United States has finally sanctioned trade with Sudan, China pours billions into oil exploration and production. Human rights violator number one comes to energize human rights violator number two. When we give China the benefit of favorable trade terms through favorable trade status and entrance to the World Trade Organization, we should not be surprised if the communist giant uses its power to bolster regimes whose human-rights policies are consistent with its own. We are all connected, for good or for ill. The result is clear and Sudan suffers for it.

What can we do? For starters, recognize that the U.S. bishops have issued a firm and articulate condemnation of Sudan's behavior. Next, consider three concrete actions we as U.S. Catholics might take: Launch a U.S.-wide regular collection until the genocide ceases, pressure elected representatives to push for a U.N.-backed no-fly zone over central and southern Sudan where the air bombing now occurs and, finally, insert the needs of Sudan in our prayers of the faithful.

As Saunders points out, “Catholics of all nations should understand our union with those suffering in Sudan.” When we receive the sacraments, we do so as an international communion of the faithful. He adds that the Catholic Sudanese people regularly offer their sufferings for us, and that this benefits us greatly. To close our ears to such Rachel-style suffering is to impoverish ourselves. To listen and act is to enter into a heightened state of grace.

Marjorie Dannenfelser is chairwoman of the Susan B. Anthony List in Washington, D.C.

Information about Sudan Relief and Rescue: P.O. Box 1877 Washington, DC, 20013-1877 www.petersvoice.com