The Hidden Holocaust

The statistics from Sudan appall any decent observer. In the last 17 years, two million persons have been killed, four million have been internally displaced and hundreds of thousands made refugees. Yet the West seems to evince little interest in the hidden holocaust that is consuming Southern Sudan, a situation that the U.S. bishops have rightly called “one of the worst human tragedies of our times.”

In essence, the peoples of Southern Sudan (who are primarily Christians and followers of traditional religions) have been under siege from their own government in the north since the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1956. The current conflict began in 1983 and intensified after a 1989 coup by the National Islamic Front. Since then the government of Khartoum has been systematically eliminating Southern Sudanese peoples for political, religious and economic reasons. Northern Christians also face persecution: churches and schools in the north have been ransacked, burnt and destroyed; and voices raised against the government brutally repressed.


The religious and political reasons for the slaughter are well known: the Khartoum government is a regime bent on the “Islamization” of the country. The economic reasons, though less well known, are no less straightforward. Large oil supplies in the south have whetted the appetites of a number of multinational firms, like the Canada-based Talisman, Inc., as well as government-backed firms from Malaysia and China. The Sudanese government, therefore, in order to expedite “economic development,” is ridding the area of people. While the oil companies profess opposition to the killing, the firms’ inexcusable complicity in the killing is a clear indication of what moral theologians call “formal cooperation” in evil. Currently, the Khartoum government, egged on by increasing oil revenues, is pursuing a new military buildup in the hopes of winning the “war” by force.

The genocide (and it is just that: the systematic elimination of ethnic and religious groups) includes wrenching stories of slavery, rape, torture, executions (including reports of crucifixions), the regular bombing of schools, churches and hospitals, as well as restrictions on aid to populations threatened by famine. It should be noted that this also represents a systematic persecution of poor Christian—and Catholic—communities.

The situation is complicated by a number of factors. First, the southern rebel forces have long been fighting against one another and are responsible for their own share of death in the region. So groups like the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army are by no means guiltless. Second, the lack of access to the area by journalists makes it almost impossible to obtain accurate reporting and less likely that the world’s attention will be focused on the crisis. Third, those in peril are extremely poor and therefore voiceless; their stories are only rarely told. Fourth, simple racism makes the plight of Southern Sudan less “interesting” for the West than, say, Bosnia or Northern Ireland.

The Congressional hearings in late April, however, signal that the coalition of congressional leaders and Christian evangelicals (who have long been in the forefront of this issue) is finally being joined by a wide array of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Also hopeful was President Bush’s strong statement on May 3, in which he recognized Sudan as an important human-rights issue for his administration.

The U.S. bishops, during their meeting in November 2000, called on the U.S. government to use its influence to find a “just peace” in Sudan through dialogue. And in April a delegation of American and Sudanese bishops called for our country to play a “central role” in ending the conflict, by helping the international community negotiate a cease-fire agreement. The group suggested the United States should also press corporations and governments to cease activities related to oil production that contribute to the war’s escalation, appoint a special U.S. envoy for Sudan, take immediate steps to end human rights abuses and press warring factions to allow food aid to those who most need it. We would go even further, and agree with a delegation of Canadian church leaders who have called for a total moratorium on all oil development in Southern Sudan. The economic power of the United States in particular could make it a prime mover in the push for a moratorium, as a way of preventing corporations and governments from profiting from genocide and cutting off the flow of monies to Khartoum.

The careful suggestions of the bishops of Sudan, Canada and the United States should be heeded. So should the call of Christ. It is time to care for our brothers and sisters in Southern Sudan and to put an end to their appalling suffering.

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