From his exile in Nairobi, Kenya, he makes dangerous apostolic visits to his El Obeid Diocese in central Sudan. He wants to prod the international community to stop the 17-year-long Sudanese civil war which has seen 2 million people killed and more than 5 million displaced. He spoke with Register correspondent Loretta G. Seyer from Washington, D.C.
Seyer: For those who don't know much about Sudan and its civil war, could you please describe what's been happening there since 1983?
Bishop Gassis: I would prefer to go to 1989. That is when the present Islamic fundamentalist regime overthrew a democratically elected government and established a dictatorship of Islamic fundamentalism.
Ever since, the war has escalated, slavery has become a top issue, and the persecution of the Christians has become more acute. The detention of priests, the assassination of catechists, killing of innocent people, closing of churches, bombing, aerial bombardment, man-made famine — all this came with the present Islamic fundamentalist regime in Sudan.
How has this conflict affected you both personally and as the bishop of El Obeid?
It is very clear. A bishop cannot sit idle or sit in his house while his flock is being persecuted, being starved to death, the children are being abducted and enslaved, the girls are being raped — they go through this genital mutilation — our elders are being killed. I can't sit there and just say things are all right. Things are not all right.
I have to stand up and defend the dignity of my people in their human rights. This is the mission of the Church.
And if the Church keeps quiet, the Church has already betrayed its mission. That is not only true for us, the Sudanese bishops who have to face this difficulty; I think the Catholic Church all over the world should feel the pinch of the persecution.
They should show a kind of solidarity with us by opening their mouths and saying, “There is a persecuted church which we have to save before it is annihilated.”
Who are the Catholics in your diocese?
The Catholics are mainly people from southern Sudan or from the Nuba Mountains.
The entire population of the Nuba region, which is as big as Scotland, is part and parcel of my diocese. The Dinka population — which in southern Sudan is part of the clan of the Dinkas known as the Dinka Abea or Dinkumgob — are part and parcel of my diocese.
This is in addition to other peoples and tribes from southern Sudan who have escaped from their respective areas because of the war. They came up to areas where they can feel secure. These are the Christians.
Just Catholics, or other Christians as well?
It is not only Catholics.
In the Nuba Mountains, it is the Nuba. They are multicultural, multiracial and multireligious in a sense. Within the Nuba Mountains, you have Catholics, you have Episcopalians, you have evangelicals, you have Africans of traditional beliefs, and you even have Muslims.
These groups have traditionally gotten on pretty well, haven't they?
They have always lived in peace. There was never, never, and I underline it, any kind of conflict or persecution or any kind of difficulty among them. The Nuba culture and tradition is a one of peaceful coexistence.
I remember many years ago I went to visit the Nuba Mountains, and there were more than 3,000 people. And who was there? There were the Muslim leaders of the Nuba people there to greet me. There were also the Episcopalian ministers, pastors, the evangelical pastors. And when I started to say Mass, the evangelical pastors stood up to read the first reading, the Episcopalian read the second reading, and the Catholic read the Gospel.
So, I think that this issue of religious antagonism and bigotry is something being introduced by the present regime of Sudan.
It's having that much of an impact?
Yet, it has a lot of impact because it has divided the people. As long as the issue of creed, the liberty to worship and adore, is left to the people to decide and the issue of ethnicity is left to the people, I think that other issues can be settled easily.
‘If this had happened in Europe, or had happened in Asia or in the Middle East, all the newspapers would have carried it on their front papes.’
But when religion is used as a leverage to frighten, to terrorize, to kill, to assassinate, to rape, to enslave under the guise of religion, I think we are entering into a very, very dangerous area.
What's happening with regard to slavery? It seems that there's finally been some recognition that this is going on. What are you hearing or seeing?
Slavery has become such a controversial issue in the United States, unfortunately. There is an international organization, UNICEF, that has never spoken against slavery in Sudan. Only a year ago, I think, they admitted that there is slavery.
But there are so many other people who say that the way the children are redeemed [“bought” by Westerners who intend to free them] is wrong because it might encourage an increase in the abduction of other children, it would increase the number of slaves, and it would enrich the Arabs or the middle persons who bring these redeemed children to be set free.
Who is taking the children? And where are they being sold?
The Sudanese embassy tries to justify it, to say it is a kind of intertribal strife that has always existed. …
It is not something that is traditional anymore. In the past, there was this kind of intertribal strife because the Arabs during the dry season used to move southward with their cattle in search of pasture and of water because their land is dry. But, now, with the sophisticated weapons and with the training they have, the creation of Islamic mujahedin [a guerrilla force that claims divine authority for its activities], Islamic militias, telling them that whatever they capture is their property.
It is a jihad, it is a holy war — take what you can, including women, including children, including grain, including cattle.
Some people have been saying that the slavers have been taking Christian children so they can be forcibly Islamized.
Of course, this is the policy of the regime. They are not going to admit it, but the very fact that these children are taken, especially the adolescents, and they are brainwashed with Islamic doctrine says something. They are being robbed of their language, of their customs and of their traditions.
These children may be Africans because of their skin, that's all. But they are going to be Arabized, they're going to be Islamized, they are going to be made fanatic. And at the end of the day, these people are going to be trained militarily to go and kill their own people. This is the tragedy.
Do you agree or disagree with the strategy of buying children to free them?
I say, “OK, if you tell me that the way these children are redeemed is not correct and it does not solve the problem, I ask you, for the sake of justice, give me an alternative solution. What would be the solution to get our children back?”
And they have no solution to bring us. So, maybe in their heart of hearts, they mean to let these children remain as slaves at the hands of their captors. That means that these children are going to come one day to suppress their own people.
I reply: “If that child was your child, or if that young women was your wife or your sister or your daughter who goes through these humiliations of rape and genital mutilation, I wonder if you would say, ‘Let them stay there as slaves or as concubines.’”
They would adopt a totally, a totally different attitude, and their version would be changed instantly.
Some make the argument that the children are redeemed only to be captured and sold again. They ask, What's the point of redeeming them in the first place?
If some think that these children are “recycled” slaves: I think that the only people on the ground who could determine whether these are genuine enslaved children are the local bishops, the local clergy, with our catechists and with our elders, together with the families of these children.
These children are not cut off from the trees. They have relatives, they have families who will identify whether these children are their own who were abducted.
Secondly, if these people think that there is a risk in the whole operation, I would say: “OK, there is an element of risk, fine. But is it not a risk worth taking?”
I ask these people: “If you have a child, what would be the value of your child? Fifty dollars? A thousand dollars? A million dollars? Is that what is the value of your son or of your daughter?”
Definitely not. It's the worth of the entire world. It's a human life.
So, I think we have a noble cause. We are bringing these children back. They are the future of the Church, the future of Sudan.
We do not have gold and money to invest in banks. This is our capital investment — our children.
Have you come to the United States to tell people this? To let them know what's going on?
It is mainly because I think that there are people who don't know what is happening in Sudan. And at the same time I want to draw the attention of all my brothers and sisters in the United States, including my brothers in the episcopate, to come and give us a hand.
I'm not asking anybody to carry our cross. We're asking our brothers in the United States to help us carry the cross, to help us carry the cross.
And at the same time, we would like that the leadership of this country who champions human rights — they have rescued the Kurds, they have rescued the Kosovars, they have rescued the Bosnians and many others — to help us. Why not the Africans of Sudan? Why not the Christians of Sudan?
And my people say it, they say it bluntly: “Why? Is it because we have different features? Is it because we are black? Is it because we don't live in Europe? Is it because we don't have oil?”
We have oil. They found oil. And now they are selling us for 30 pieces of silver. Even less — for peanuts.
A Canadian company and others in Europe — they are selling us. They are helping the regime of Khartoum to exploit the resources of the people of southern Sudan so that the regime of Khartoum can pump this oil. It is pumping it now to get revenues to continue the war and wipe us off the map of Sudan.
I'm asking: “Where are the Christian leaders? Where are they?”
Tomorrow — as it happened with other races after they were wiped out or 6 million were killed — will they say: “Let us apologize. Let us make up.”
Why can't we do it now and rescue the people?
So, I'm begging the leadership of the United States, whether religious or civil, save the savable in Sudan before it's too late.
What happened in the air attack on your school in the Nuba Mountains?
Just a few days ago, on the 7th of this month, the regime of Khartoum sent Russian-made planes. They bombed our school, the Catholic school, which was the only well-organized school in the whole of the Nuba region [see the Feb. 20-28 Register].
Our school has 360 students. Now, they killed 14 — including the teacher, 15. How many are wounded seriously?
I'm sure by now, some of these seriously wounded children are already dead. That's why I'm going to send a medical team from the United States. I don't care how much it's going to cost me. I will find good, generous people who are going to pay $25,000 to get this team to go in and see to the butchered children.
As I'm talking to you, it just came to my mind exactly the words of what happened to the children of that land: “A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children and she would not be consoled since they were no more.”
That's exactly what's happening there.
And not even one newspaper carried the massacre of our children, not one carried the massacre of our children. I made a press release saying that our children were bombed and they were killed. Not one brought it to the forefront. why?
If this had happened in Europe, or had happened in Asia or in the Middle East, all the newspapers would have carried it on their front pages. And now we have children massacred. This is our future.
The regime of Khartoum says they have done well. And, of course, they have done well because they are killing the future, the fruit. They don't care about the tree. They want the fruit.
Kill the fruit. You will have no more trees in the future.