Over two million people have lost their lives and over four million have been displaced in the war waged by the government of Sudan against its own people in the south. It is arguably the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the world, dwarfingat least in terms of casualtiesthe recent crises in Kosovo and East Timor. As a result, Sudan has consistently been ranked as among the worst violators of human rights. Since the war began in 1983, the government has attacked citizens in the south and in other marginalized areas like the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile. It has encouraged the revival of slavery and has grossly misused the assistance of various relief organizations. Moreover, as the Islamic government in Khartoum has set itself against peoples who are Christians or follow traditional religions, Sudan also has the deserved reputation as the worst practitioner of religious persecution in the world. The campaign against the non-Muslim south can accurately be termed a genocide. Yet despite the situation, the West continues to evince little interest in the continuing crucifixion of southern Sudan.
Macram Max Gassis has been the bishop of the Diocese of El Obeid in south central Sudan since 1988. Bishop Gassis is vice president of the Sudanese bishops’ conference and, as its only Arabic-speaking member, has served as a liaison between the conference and the government of Khartoum. After the bishop testified before the U.S. Congress about the continuing atrocities in Sudan, he was indicted as a criminal by the Sudanese government. Bishop Gassis was forced to leave Sudan in 1990 for cancer treatment in Germany and the United States, and since then, like a number of other Sudanese bishops, he has lived in virtual exile from his people. Here, with James Martin, S.J., associate editor of America, he discusses the crisis in Sudan. The interview took place during Bishop Gassis’ visit to New York City on Nov. 4, 1999.
Why do you think it has been so difficult for the situation in Sudan to capture the interest of the West?
According to my guess, there are various factors. First, there is a misconception, or rather, a confusion when you speak about Islam. The Christian world is afraid that if they say there is a persecution of Christians by the Muslims, it might create an outcry in the Islamic world. But we are not here to criticize Islam itself. We are speaking about a group of Islamic fundamentalists who are using religion as a lever to persecute the non-Muslim, non-Arab peoples of Sudan.
Second, there is an interest in the oil discovered by Chevron in the area, and therefore they do not want to speak about the situation in Sudan. In fact, there are companies from China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Italy, as well as Talisman, a Canadian company, all of which are trying to export the oil. So they are not concerned about our fate or the ethnic elimination of the Africans or about the persecution of the Christians and Africans of traditional beliefs. Nobody cares about us. Nobody is interested in us. The interest is in the resources of Sudan: the oil and the gum arabic, which is mainly used in Coca Cola. That’s why there is a kind of "hush-hush" attitude.
Third, the Khartoum regime is very, very shrewd and very intelligent. The government knows how to distort reality. They have used even their embassies as the best means of public relations in this situationthe way they talk, the way they entice Western nations. They know how to use language that appeals to Western nations. And the West believes them and doesn’t believe us when we say that this is the situation! This is causing us a lot of suffering, particularly for us bishops, who are the leaders of our people. We are really saddened that we are not believed and that this regime of Islamic fundamentalists is given more credibility than we are.
And how do the bishops operate in an environment like this?
Well, we haven’t been quiet. You have to bear in mind that my brother bishops who live and operate in areas under the control of the Khartoum regime cannot say very much. But I have to bow my head in awe and respect for them, because the way they have handled the situation is really exemplary. For us who are on the other side, in areas that are controlled by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army [the army of southern Sudan] we can raise our voices and we can speak out. I wonder whether you have seen the appeal of the East African bishops that was published last August.
Yes, I’ve read this.
In this appeal all the bishops of East Africa are asking the international community to intervene and put an end to the war in Sudan, particularly to the bombing. Imagine, last Christmas we were bombarded while celebrating Christmas Mass!
Where was this?
In the Nuba Mountains. And we were bombarded on the following day, the 26th, as well. They throw not only these huge "barrel bombs," big barrels filled with shrapnel, but also bombs known as "cluster bombs." The purpose of this is to terrorize the civilian population, to make them run to the areas controlled by the regime or go to neighboring countries, as displaced persons and refugees.
We want the international community to put pressure on the United Nations aid agency Operation Lifeline Sudan, so that it is taken away from the control of Khartoum. Khartoum simply vetoes flights to the areas affected by the war and by famineat random! Today they say yes, tomorrow they say no. The Nuba Mountains, for example, were never reached by Operation Lifeline Sudan. And not only thatany nongovernmental organization that is registered with O.L.S. cannot operate in areas vetoed by Khartoum! So I haven’t seen one nongovernmental organization operating in those areas of the Nuba Mountains or parts of Bahr el Ghazal, among the Dinkas, or in Southern Blue Nile.
Then what good does Operation Lifeline Sudan do for the people in southern Sudan?
Well, they go only to those areas where the regime in Khartoum says that you can fly. If they say you don’t fly there, you don’t fly!
When we bishops of Sudan sounded the alarm that a famine was loomingand famine doesn’t come in 24 hours; famine builds day in and day outnobody took notice of our appeal. Then, when it reached a certain magnitude and the O.L.S. said yes, there is a famine and we should bring in relief; Khartoum vetoed the O.L.S. flights. That’s why hundreds of thousands of our people died of starvation. And that’s why we are saying that Operation Lifeline and the nongovernmental organizations should operate in all areas affected by famine and war.
We are also asking that the international community should stop the Khartoum regime from burning villages and abducting our children as slaves. Slavery still exists in Sudan. As I speak to you today, we have children who have fled from the so-called "peace camps" or who were redeemed by their parents or relatives or by some kind of organization like Christian Solidarity International. We have started by educating these childrennot just by educating in the narrow sense, but by healing them as well. These children are traumatized by the abductions that they had to undergo. So we are asking the international community to intervene on their behalf.
We are saying that the south, the Nuba Mountains and all the marginalized areas have the right to self-determination. Self-determination is not a "wishy-washy" issueit is part and parcel of the human rights struggle. Second, they should separate religion from politics. We cannot say Sudan is an "Islamic" country, we cannot say Sudan is an "Arab" country. We should not and we cannot, because Sudan is a multiracial, multicultural, multireligious country. I simply don’t understand why the regime in Khartoum thinks that this variety, this pluralism and this diversity is something that would impoverish the nation. Just look at the United States.
You alluded to slave redemption. What is your position on this?
I still insist on the fact that slavery exists in Sudan. I still maintain that we have the right to redeem our children. I still uphold my conviction that an organization like Christian Solidarity International is doing excellent work in helping these children to be brought back to their families. I’m just wondering why some international organizations are condemning the redemption of our children, saying that it is only creating some kind of a business. And they say that the only people who are going to have their pockets full of money are the Arabs, or the middlemen who bring these children, and that it might create a kind of "recycled slavery."
The argument, as I understand it, is that if you start paying for the slaves, then this will create a market. And if that’s true, the fear is that the financial incentive will make people even more likely to capture slaves.
I would tell the people who bring this objection to understand that only those who work at the grassroots level are in a position to identify the slaves. And the people who are working at the grassroots level are we, the local bishops, assisted by our brother priests, our catechists and lay leaders. We can identify who are actually the true slaves and where they can be found and how much we can pay for them.
I don’t want to accuse anybody, but I want to speak in general about those who object to helping our children. I would say that one child redeemed is saved, first, because this child is going back to the family and, second, because this child will not lose its culture, tradition, language or faith. Once these children are taken into slavery, into bondage, they’re finished. They are going to be Arabized; they are going to be Muslim; they are going to be Africans who will be fighting their own kinsmen tomorrow. After all, one child is worth the gold of the whole world.
And I want to say, redemption is a risk. But isn’t life a risk? Isn’t it a risk to get married? Isn’t it a risk to become a priest? Isn’t it a risk to drive a car? Isn’t it a risk to fly in a plane? Isn’t it a risk to stay in bed? How many people die in bed? And so because it is a risk to go to bed, should I not go to bed? We have to accept the risks. After all, it is worth taking the risks, because here we have a human person.
Are there signs of hope now for the political situation in southern Sudan?
There is hope in the sense that there is now a reconciliation process taking place among the southern Sudanese people. And in unity there is strength. There is hope because the southern Sudanese are aware that the regime in Khartoum is trying to divide us in order to wipe us away. So now a process of reconciliation is ongoing, and we as bishops are encouraging it and want to be a part of this reconciliation process. This is our hope.
The second hope is that, notwithstanding the war, the church is prospering. And the number of Christians is growing, not only in number, but in quality. We are being purified "as gold is tested in fire."
You spoke about your hopes in terms of the response from Western political powers. What about the response from Christians worldwide? What would your hope be, and what kind of response would you like to see?
My hope is that, for example, the U.S. bishops’ conference would make a special appeal as they did for East Timor. Why can’t they make the same appeal for Sudan? Why are they keeping quiet? Why is East Timor a top priority, and we are nothing? When they see us, they say, "Ah yes, I’ve heard about your suffering. Poor fellows, you are suffering...." But we do not want to be pitied, we want to be loved. And the best way to show one’s love is to make this appeal for prayer on a national level here in the United States. And to make an appeal also to help us materially. Because we are faced with so many challenges.
Take me, for example. In order to go to the Nuba mountains I have to pay between $15,000 and $18,000 per flight. [Flying into war zones, where pilots are unable to obtain insurance, involves exhorbitant costs.] Where am I to find this money? I need to open schools for our children, and we don’t have gold or money to invest in banks. Our capital investment is our children; they are the future of the church. This is the future of Sudan. So how am I going to buy all the materials, like textbooks and exercise books, and so on? First we must buy them in Kenya, then we have to send them to northern Kenya, and then by plane because there is no way we can reach the Nuba Mountains by roads.
It is our people who will suffer if they are not helped. I would like to say help us in the field of education. I have seminarians, and I don’t know how to pay for them and their expenses! I have catechists whom I brought to Kitale, in Kenya, as well as teachers for whose formation we are responsible. There we have the Blessed Bakhita Formation Center for minor seminarians and catechists. This formation center covers three dioceses in Sudan. Now to bring these young men and young women in as catechists or young men as seminarians, I must ask myself, how much are we going to pay for salary and transportation as well as room and board and education? Nobody thinks of all these expenses.
Yes, indeed, we are called a "recipient church," and we are! It’s true; I’m not ashamed. And the church in the United States says it is a "donor church." And it is. But aren’t we also a donor church? What about our bloodthe blood of our martyrs? What about the suffering of our children?
We donate these realities to the universal church. So I think we are giving more than receivingbecause we are giving our lives.
So I’m making an appeal to my brothers and sisters in the United States, to my brothers in the episcopate, to my brother priests and pastors, to all the communities, to realize that there is a church that is facing total isolation, total annihilation, if we do not come to the rescue of this church. And we should not be "choosy," to help and pray for the Kosovars who live on the European continent and not the Sudanese on the black African continent. That’s my appeal to my brothers and sisters here in the United States and in Europe. And I would like even to say: Come and see us, come and touch us, come and put your hands around us, and caress us! Because love is a virtue of the strong and courageous: One who is a coward will never be able to love.