The National Catholic Review

Urgent calls are going out once again for massive food and other humanitarian aid to Sudan. Yet a group of Catholic missionaries working in the “liberated areas” of South Sudan refuse to accept famine, human suffering and dependence on international charity as the permanent lot of Sudanese people. Instead, they want to broaden radically the scope of discussion regarding the Sudanese conflict.

In a hard-hitting statement released at their annual meeting on Jan. 19, in Nairobi, Kenya, the Comboni missionaries appealed to the international community to give up “their greed and selfish interests” and “help Sudan regain its lost humanity and identity.”

Their statement raised some contentious issues, including the fact that the war in Sudan is no longer about people fighting for their freedom and human rights, but about power and greed; that nongovernmental organizations and churches unknowingly support warring factions through the relief aid they provide; and that leaders of the warring sides should “lay down their guns” and cease the fighting.

But Sudanese bishops have voiced disappointment at the statement. “We are sorry that this statement was made without our consultation,” Bishop Macram Max Gassis of El Obeid told Catholic News Service at the close of the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Regional Conference in Nairobi on Jan. 26. The conference represents the bishops of southern Sudan, who also belong to the bishops’ conference for all of Sudan. The southern Sudanese bishops were critical of the Comboni claim that relief aid is prolonging the war.

However, in a separate interview, the president of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Joseph Gasi of Tombora-Yambio, told CNS that the rest of the Comboni declaration expresses what the bishops have been saying for decades. The international community, said Bishop Gasi, needs to break its silence and end its apathy regarding the situation in Sudan. The Combonis’ statement is helpful because it publicizes the plight of the suffering in Sudan, he said.

Recent History

The Comboni statement came shortly before a United Nations World Food Program report warning that millions of Sudanese face acute hunger because of continuing civil war and worsening drought. In an urgent plea, the agency on Feb. 13 appealed for $135 million to feed 2.9 million people in both government- and rebel-held areas of the country until the end of the year. Estimates from human rights organizations suggest that over two million people have perished, 4.4 million have been internally displaced in Sudan, and nearly 400,000 have been forced to live in neighboring countries as refugees. Many of the refugees and displaced persons live without adequate food and shelter and are in constant fear of government assaults. To survive, they have migrated to urban centers or relief centers in order to eke out a degraded existence dependent on begging, charity, casual labor and prostitution. Even government officials refer to these uprooted and homeless people as Shamasa, literally “those who have no roof but the sun.”

Four years ago, Pope John Paul II assured the Catholic faithful in Southern Sudan “of the prayerful solidarity of the whole church, as well as the Holy See’s unfailing efforts to draw the attention of the international community to your tragic situation.” Yet today, at the beginning of its 18th year, Sudan’s civil war remains among the world’s worst humanitarian nightmares, its solution as elusive as ever.

In his message, John Paul also entrusted Sudanese Catholics to the intercession of their two patron saints: St. Josephine Bakhita (c. 1869-1947), a black Sudanese woman who spent her childhood years in slavery and later became a great spiritual force in the Italian church; and Blessed Daniel Comboni (1831-81), the long-suffering Italian missionary who founded the Order of Comboni Missionaries and became the first Catholic bishop of Khartoum.

Astonishingly, slavery and slave trading, which the Sudanese government ignores and denies but which it sanctions indirectly by some of its policies and actions, continue unabated. And now, the usually unruffled Comboni missionaries have decided to “break the silence and intensify [their] commitment against the injustice that fuels the war in Sudan.”

Last year, a conference of East African Catholic bishops offered the following litany of other horrors of Southern Sudan, which labors under the National Islamic Front government in Khartoum: torture of persons in security detention; extra-judicial punishment and executions; disappearances of persons; lack of freedom of expression; laws, attitudes and practices that discriminate against non-Arabs and non-Muslims; the manipulation of the media in favor of all that is Muslim and Arab to the exclusion of other religions and ethnic groups; the lack of genuine dialogue between Christians and Muslims because of political manipulation; the use of food for proselytism or as a weapon of war; and the systematic depletion and expropriation of property and resources of the population in the war zones.

At their meeting in Nairobi last month, the missionaries discovered that they were unable to point the finger of blame at only one side. They said they “painfully analyzed and evaluated the present tragic situation of war and violence in South Sudan” and came “to the unanimous conviction that the situation of war in Sudan at the present stage has become immoral and a tragic farce.” Even for the freedom fighters, they implied, the war “is not any longer a struggle for freedom of the Sudanese people and for the defense of human rights.” They said, “Many heartless people are taking advantage of it and enriching themselves at the expense of the poor.”

But Edward Abyei Lino, a commander in the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army, told Catholic News Service last month that he does not “believe that churches and N.G.O.’s are the problem. The church is a victim of Sudan.” He said that, contrary to the Combonis’ statement, people are clearly trying to defend their freedom and human rights in the face of the imposition of repressive, “divide-and-rule” policies of the Sudanese government.

The missionaries, however, had the harshest words for “global political and economic powers,” who they said are interested only in “Sudanese resources, not the well-being of the Sudanese people.”

Mohamed Suliman, a Sudanese scholar, in a recent study commissioned by the London-based Institute for African Alternatives, would agree with the missionaries’ assessment of the current forces driving the war. He says that over the last three decades “developments in the Sudan have gradually and consistently changed the nature of the conflict from being a classic ethno-religious conflict to one mainly over resources.”

The Scramble for Sudan

There is today a full-scale scramble for southern Sudan. Once neglected by British and Egyptian colonizers and by the early governments of independent Sudan, the south’s recently discovered vast oil reserves and its plentiful water resources and agricultural lands have focused international economic interests on the region. A consortium of Canadian, Chinese and Malaysian companies are working together to exploit the oil, while the Arab League has been increasingly looking upon the region as the potential bread-basket of the Arab world.

The Catholic faithful, working on both sides of the Sudanese conflict, have been fervent advocates of reconciliation between Sudan’s Moslem north and the largely Christian south. But according to Charles Omondi, editor of the Sudan Catholic Information Office, “Khartoum regards the Catholic Church as the most stubborn of all the Christian denominations.”

Archbishop Erwin Josef Ender, the apostolic pro-nuncio to Sudan, who conveyed the pope’s message to the South, explained that “although refusing to be directly involved in politics, the church is by her mission on the side of those who strive for justice and peace and for the respect of the inviolable dignity of every human being, regardless of their origin, color or sex.”

The pope, in his own message, spoke of hope in the midst of deepest despair. “In the midst of violence of every kind, you still know how to love and to bring relief to one another,” he said. “When discrimination and injustice afflict you, you know how to persevere in faith and in communion with the church, the body of Christ. When all appears to have failed, you know how to give signs of goodness and solidarity, which make it possible to say that we can prepare for a better tomorrow.”

But the Comboni missionaries last month claimed that in southern Sudan today, religion itself “is distorted and misused as a means for other interests. The number of victims is escalating, especially among women and children.” They concluded that “spiritual, human and cultural values are getting lost. Corruption, tribalism and fratricidal hatred are fostered.” They stated that “degradation, underdevelopment and anarchy” are increasing.

Break the Silence

Since last year, the Catholic Church in Sudan has come under great pressure from Muslim extremists in the government, even in the north, and Comboni institutions were not spared. On June 22, Sudanese police stormed the Comboni College in Khartoum, ransacking the institution leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. The Comboni College, established in 1929, is the virtual nerve center for all the Catholic-run learning institutions in the vast Sudan. It offers a wide range of courses from elementary to tertiary level and has a reputation for producing quality graduates, among them many Muslims.

This incident, the first of its kind in the institution’s history, came shortly after a mysterious fire gutted part of the Sudan Catholic Bishops Conference building that houses the communications department. The fire caused damage estimated at tens of thousands of dollars and temporarily grounded the department’s operations.

Four years ago Archbishop Ender observed that “the present conditions of relative security and stability in the so-called liberated areas don’t seem to need any other radical political change, but rather further improvement.” But in Nairobi last month, Comboni missionaries felt that “the word liberation is abused. What improvement do we see? Oppressors and oppressed are running for their life. Northerners against Southerners, Northerners against Northerners, Southerners against Southerners, Nuer and Dinka are fighting against Arabs. Nuer and Arabs are fighting against Dinka. Dinka against Dinka. Nuer against Nuer, Didinga against Dinka. There are no winners. All are losing. Humanity in Sudan is getting lost.”

“Few wars are ever fought in the name of their real causes,” observes Suliman. “Instead they are fought under old banners and old slogans, based on memories of past conflict. Because these memories fade so slowly, they obscure from the valiant warriors the possibility that they might be fighting for reasons no longer relevant or valid and even, on occasion, against their own interests.” Suliman believes this is partly the case in Sudan’s current war. “Although the major cause for the conflict is now the struggle over resources, most fighters on both sides remain convinced that the war is all about ethnicity, cultural identity and religion.”

The Comboni missionaries claimed that nongovernmental organizations and churches “prolong the fighting through the relief aid [that] unknowingly supports also the warring factions.”

Sudan, said the Combonis, has sufficient “wealth and resources [to] guarantee a good livelihood for all Sudanese. We appeal to you leaders of the warring sides: In the name of God, lay down the guns! Stop fighting! We appeal to all people of good will: Break the silence and intensify your mediation for peace in Sudan!”

Odhiambo Okite is a retired editor of Target and Lengo, East Africa’s largest ecumenical periodicals. He also served as chief press officer for the government of the Republic of Kenya.