Sudan's Christians Fight for Survival

TORIT, Sudan — Bishop Akio Mutek of southern Sudan sees a warning of his people's demise in schoolbooks.

As Arab Muslim fundamentalists attempt to take over Sudan and subject its citizens to strict Islamic rule, officials in Khartoum are revising history books that used to describe Arab migration as beginning from Arabia in the 13th century, when the blacks were already in the country. Now they say that Arabs entered Sudan along with the black African population that is predominant in the south.

“In 10 or 15 years, they will say that the Arabs were from this area originally,” predicted Bishop Mutek, an auxiliary of the Diocese of Torit.

Though the world's attention has been focused on Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Sudanese like Bishop Mutek feel they are directly in the path of a radical Islam that feels compelled to spread throughout the world — through force, when persuasion is not enough.

Khartoum has told the United States it is cooperating in the war against terrorism, but according to Bishop Mutek, the regime's war against the south of the country is itself a terroristlike campaign. In early October, just weeks after Sept. 11, he said, the government was bombing the Eastern Equatoria area of Sudan.

“There had never been any bombing there except five weeks ago, when they bombed a village, Murahatiha, killing 13 people, including eight children,” the bishop told the Register on a visit to New York Nov. 7. “It was the day [Sudanese President Umar Hasan Ahmad] Al-Bashir visited Torit.”

Bishop Mutek explained that heavy security for Al-Bashir on visits to the south includes bombing aimed at the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, or SPLA, which has been leading a resistance against Khartoum for 18 years.

“Even if they kill civilians, they claim they are SPLA,” the bishop said. “They aim at the villages. I don't think they care.”

Khartoum's Plans

The government in Khartoum is dominated by members of the fundamentalist National Islamic Front. Islamic law was imposed in the largely Arab north in 1991 and applies to all citizens, regardless of their religion. Islamic law, known as Sharia, provides for stiff punishments such as lashing or amputation for stealing; lashing for drinking alcohol, and death for apostasy or even for questioning the tenets of Islam.

Sunni Muslims account for 70% of the country's population of 36 million;25% follow indigenous beliefs and the remaining 5% is Christian.

Khartoum is determined to make all of Sudan an Islamic state, Bishop Mutek said. Resisting that Islamicization has led to a bloody war, resulting in an estimated 1.8 million deaths from fighting and famine, and some 3 million displaced persons and refugees.

Government forces have resorted to the bombing of civilian targets, including churches, school and hospitals; slavery; rape; the use of food as a weapon; and forced conversions to Islam, the rebels and human rights groups say.

Bin Laden operated in the country from 1991 to 1996, and Bishop Mutek said the terrorist training camps he established still exist. “Why do they keep the training camps in the area and say, ‘We are cooperating'” with the war on terrorism, the bishop wondered. “If the training is not going on, the places have not been destroyed. They are not temporary places.”

The United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Sudan, Gerhart Baum, affirmed in June that human rights violations have been increasing. But he countered the popular belief that the war is a religious one. “Religion is misused,” Baum said. “It is a power struggle.”

Nevertheless, Christians are discriminated against, Bishop Mutek said. “If your name is Peter, obviously a Christian name, you won't get a good job or get good grades in school. You won't get into high school or a military college,which allows you to get a better paying job.”

Adding more volatility has been the discovery of oil. Human rights activists say the government is buying weapons with the royalties it receives from foreign oil companies.

Talisman owns a 25% share in the oil operation, along with a Malaysian company and Chinese and Sudanese state-owned concerns.

Last month, Talisman was named in a $1 billion class-action lawsuit suit over its alleged complicity in Sudan's human rights abuses. The suit was launched by the Presbyterian Church of Sudan in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Talisman, which paid some $155 million in royalties to Khartoum last year, insists that the problems would be there with or without its presence.

David Mann, Talisman's manager of investor relations, said his company has raised issues with the Sudanese government, built hospitals in the south, aided humanitarian efforts and hired southern Sudanese. And helping the country to develop economically could lead to an improvement in the conflict, which he said is more complicated than Sudan advocates portray.

“It's an extremely poor country and an extremely complicated political situation,” Mann said. “We chose to take the path of constructive engagement … It's a tragic situation, but it's not going to be solved by poverty.”

The government bombs the area where oil is to be explored, Bishop Mutek said. “Then, after a few days, the soldiers [clear the area] with tanks. Then they keep the land open for six months and call Talisman [Energy of Calgary, Alberta] and tell them there have never been any people there.” And the government is bringing Arabs to the south, settling them on oil fields, he said.

Islam's March

Sudan is not the only African country where radical Islam is taking hold. In Nigeria, where several northern states have recently implemented the Muslim legal code despite a constitutional prohibition against the establishment of a state religion, a Sharia court recently sentenced a woman to death by stoning for fornication. And Bishop Mutek finds worrisome signs in Kenya and Uganda.

But observers fear that for radical Islamists, Sudan is the key to the rest of Africa.

“Sudan is a preview of what will go on in all of Africa if the south falls,” said William Saunders, who founded the Bishop Gassis Sudan Relief Fund to assist the struggling Sudanese in the Nuba Mountains.

Observers warn of a pattern that may be replicated in other parts of Africa. Initially, the Islamists present themselves as helpful and peaceful. “They go to a place as traders, bring in things people need, try to live with the people, marry, build shops, preach, ask people to convert, marry local girls, give their children Muslim names and build mosques,” Bishop Mutek said.

He cited an incident in 1986, when Muslims sought out unmarried women who were pregnant and promised to give them money if they gave their children Muslim names. “Then they can show they are in the majority,” he said.

The Islamist movement is discriminatory, racist, supremacist and spreads through violence and coercion, said Rev. Keith Roderick, an Episcopalian who serves as secretary general of the Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights. “There is no fair competition between ideals.”

Rev. Roderick's organization seeks to unite people who have suffered under what he calls Jihad Islamism and raise awareness of their plight. Meeting in Alexandria, Va., last month, the coalition proposed the launch of an international congress for victims of dhimmitude, the discriminatory and segregated status reserved for non-Muslims in Islamic countries.

The violence against the dhimmi takes many forms, Rev. Roderick said. For example, in Sudan, the National Islamic Front's refugee camps have practiced a “food for faith” policy. “You may not be taken care of unless you convert to Islam,” he said. “This kind of coercion is every bit as destructive as being shot or bombed.”

U.S. Response

Father Vincent Nagle, former professor of Islamics at the Catholic University of East Africa in Nairobi, warns that the United States needs to maintain its influence in Saudi Arabia and Egypt — the two countries, he says, that determine Islamic direction worldwide. “If the U.S. withdraws, those governments will fall tomorrow, probably into the hands of fundamentalist Islamic movements,” said Father Nagle, a member of the Priestly Fraternity of Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, which is affiliated with the Communion and Liberation movement.

Rev. Roderick called Sudan a “hinge point” for the rest of southern equatorial Africa, and said the fall of the country's south to Jihad Islamism would have a ripple effect. “It would provide a base for other Islamic governments and movements” on the continent. “Sudan would be the godfather.”

“We need to undermine the radicals’ position,” Rev. Roderick said. While a military response would only spawn more terrorists, in his view, the U.S. should pressure governments it has alliances with.

Said Rev. Roderick, “We give a lot of money to regimes such as Egypt, Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority for development and yet we do not hold those governments accountable in regards to the activities they sponsor or tolerate that are actually detrimental to our interests and to the interests of a civil society. When the governments sanction religious schools that teach religious hatred, publish school books that advocate jihad against Christians and Jews, depicting them as pigs, and provide time on state-controlled media for religious leaders to incite hatred, those governments are not acting much like friends of civilization.”

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