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Fugitive bishop wants pressure on Islamic Front

NCR Staff

Nothing seemingly penetrates the indifference to genocide in Sudan. Not the cries of the hundreds of young girls being raped or abducted as concubines. Not the death rattles of the school children whose mountain villages have just been bombed or the moans of the hordes of maimed people, stumping around on what’s left of their bodies after stepping on land mines planted by the government of Sudan. Not the widespread rounding up of the people of entire villages who are then sold into slavery, or the 600,000 persons displaced during the past five months. Not the forced conversion of animists and Christians to Islam. Not the use of starvation as a weapon of war and suppression. Not the 1.2 million people wandering toward death in Bahr el Ghazal, the Nuba Mountains, the Blue Nile, Upper Nile, Ingessena Hills and Eastern Equatoria if food relief is too long delayed.

Everything augurs against anyone listening to the religious persecution and suffering stemming from the 17-year-long civil war in Sudan.

Westerners stumble over the names: Gassis and Wako. Abangite and Nyiker. Taban and Tombe. Majak and Mazzolari. Menegazzo, Kur and Mutek. Western ears don’t even hear the pleas of these Sudanese bishops who issue statements on atrocities and grievous injustices, statements soon shelved, easily ignored.

Certainly Western governments issue their protests and support ineffectual sanctions. But when the bishops of Sudan insist “the Sudan conflict does not differ from Kosovo, Sarajevo, East Timor and Sierra Leone, where violations of human rights have prompted massive international intervention,” Western governments turn away from suggesting “massive international intervention.”

The government of Sudan is Arab. It is Muslim. To Western minds, Arab and Muslim equal oil. The Western view is: Best not rock the oil tanker.

Sudan is the largest country in Africa; Christians are its smallest minority. In the predominantly Muslim country of 27 million, Christians probably number fewer than 4 million, less than one-sixth of the population.

For those who think in terms of emergency relief aid -- aid that the Sudan government tries to subvert -- the logistics are a nightmare. There are few roads in a country so enormous that nine countries share its boundaries. Starting at the top and moving counterclockwise, Sudan’s neighbors are Egypt, Libya, Chad, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopa and Eritrea. At the northeast corner, Sudan borders the Red Sea.

Sudan’s climate ranges from desert to equatorial swamp and jungle. But it is religious politics, not geography and topography, that governs Sudan today. Its extremist Islamic government is the National Islamic Front, based in the nation’s capital, Khartoum. Khartoum is in the east-central part of the country, at the meeting of the Blue Nile and the White Nile.

The front achieved power through a coup in 1989 and declared the rule of Islam.

Civil war in a nutshell

Sudan’s civil war, in a nutshell, has three elements: resistance, religion and oil. First, the South -- predominately black African and non-Muslim -- has demanded autonomy for decades from the Arab North. But the South’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the SPLA, has been unable to defeat the National Islamic Front’s forces on Southern soil, and is splintered into various strongholds by government incursions. Next, the South deplores and resists the Khartoum-based government’s Islamization-or-extermination policies.

Finally, there’s oil in Sudan, and the promise of more discoveries ahead. That means more fighting because the government of Sudan wants to control the oil, and the known deposits are generally in the South.

For all these reasons, the minority black Africans of the South have resisted. For their pains and liberation movements, they have bled. And still they bleed.

The U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom says Sudan suffers “the worst religious persecution in the world. And persecution on other grounds as well.” They mean racial, ethnic and tribal.

The story is complex. The witnesses are compelling.

One such witness is the plucky, outspoken Bishop Macram Max Gassis -- a bishop on the run.

To enter his Sudan diocese from virtual exile, Gassis first has to find between $8,000 and $13,000 to hire a plane to fly him in from Nairobi. He has to enter under cover because the Sudan government has a warrant out for his arrest.

Next, he needs a safe place to land -- safe meaning an area of his El Obeid diocese not occupied by the pillaging soldiers of the National Islamic Front or the equally wanton militias.

Finally Gassis has to enter clandestinely so that the government’s air force, consisting of old Soviet Antonov transports converted into bombers, doesn’t start dropping bombs wherever he goes.

Once in his diocese he is as public as can be. Soldiers opposed to the National Islamic Front regime guard him 24 hours a day. Yet he dare not stay too long, usually a week to 10 days at the most.

NCR interviewed Gassis early this year and has subsequently contacted him by fax. A stocky, ruefully smiling man, Gassis is in North America this month on a speaking tour and to attend premier showings of the Windhover Forum’s documentary on his country, titled “The Hidden Gift: War and Faith in Sudan.” The documentary will be shown at Georgetown University and the University of San Francisco.

The 61-year-old Khartoum-born Gassis is the only Sudanese bishop who speaks both colloquial and classical Arabic. He also speaks Italian, English, and a little French. He says, he is trying “to better” his German.

He uses his many languages to speak out wherever he gets a forum. He does not court popularity. “When you stand up and say things,” he said, “starkly and without sugar coating, without mincing your words, that isn’t appreciated by people who like to use camouflage words and diplomatic language. They don’t want to hear the word genocide.”

They specifically means Sudan’s radical National Islamic Front. Relying on contacts with Sudan’s bishops’ conference, and with others around the country, Gassis is a leader in the thankless and generally fruitless task of trying to generate an international public outcry against the Khartoum-based government’s brutality and persecution.

Gassis is vice president of the Sudanese bishops’ conference. He has his U.S. admirers. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has called him “the voice of the voiceless.”

Thomas Farr, who directs the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, calls the bishop “a brave man. He gets high marks for compassion properly placed,” said Farr.

He cares for all

“He takes care not only of Catholics but of all the people. I have heard him in meetings, and he never does special pleading for the Catholic constituency. He clearly has an important and difficult agenda for which he is trying to get support from a wide variety of organizations and governments.”

Another major Gassis booster is human rights lawyer Bill Saunders, who learned about Sudan in 1993, met the bishop in 1994, helped him for a couple of years until, in spring 1999, Saunders formed the nonprofit Sudan Relief and Rescue to publicize and fundraise.

Gassis “is outspoken,” said Saunders “but that’s his obligation as a bishop. He’s got to speak out for his flock. Jesus knew who wanted to kill the prophets. Prophets irritate people. They tell the truth and they don’t shut up.”

The U.S. Commission on Interreligious Freedom, created by Congress, finds Gassis an excellent source on Sudan. Lawrence Goodrich, the commission’s communications director, said the commissioners regard Gassis, who has testified before them, “as an intelligent, effective and sympathetic witness. Certainly his information is credible.” Gassis’ backers in the U.S. Congress include Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.

Gassis’ testimony is constant: The National Islamic Front, he declares, seeks to either destroy the non-Muslim, mainly non-Arab and generally African animist and Christian population of the South, or subjugate the people sufficiently to Islamize them, while attempting to radicalize the moderate Muslims.

Left alone, said Gassis, his diocese, El Obeid, one of Sudan’s largest cities, is a peaceable settlement of Arabs and Africans, Muslims, animists and Christians in the middle of a vast stretch of barren desert. But, Gassis said, the National Islamic Front does not want harmony. It wants total submission at any cost. The Islamic government bombed an El Obeid diocesan parochial school in February in the heavily Christian Nuba Mountains. The 19 dead children were first graders of all beliefs -- Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and adherents to indigenous religions.

The government’s anti-Catholic depredations are constant.

In June, government police ransacked Comboni College in Khartoum. The college has been described as the “nerve center for all Catholic-run learning institutions in Sudan.”

In July, Sudan’s secret police abducted, tortured and then released a White Father’s lay missionary student from Mexico. The Khartoum government may have been behind a May fire that gutted half the Catholic bishops’ conference building in the nation’s capital. The government stepped up its air attacks Aug. 22 when 12 bombs dropped on the Narus Catholic mission in southern Sudan injuring a nurse and children.

In vicious ground assaults, government troops make incursions into the South and the Nuba Mountains regions, displace the population and destroy the villages. Starvation and internal migration result. Hungry internal refugees then make their way toward the capital, Khartoum, and other northern cities.

There, said Gassis, Christians and other non-Muslims in government-controlled areas, are “under stress, under surveillance and under persecution. Their movement is controlled. They are falsely accused and imprisoned.”

Gassis continued, “We on the other side, in the liberated areas (not under National Islamic Front control) have some freedom of movement and speech, but we’re scared because of the aerial bombardment, the anti-personnel mines and sudden attacks from either the Khartoum army or Islamic militia.

“It is genocide. It is genocide when you throw bombs at innocents,” said Gassis, “when you massacre indiscriminately, when the young women and girls are abducted for sexual pleasure, children kept as slaves, families sold as slaves, adolescents brainwashed, given military training and told to go out and kill their own.”

Sudan’s Catholics are served by perhaps 150 priests -- approximately one priest to 26,000 Catholics -- many of them expatriates and most of them working in the north, Gassis said.

Gassis grew up as one of the Christian minority. Educated by the Comboni Missionaries, seminarian Gassis studied philosophy at Oxford, England, and in Verona, Italy, with three years’ theology in Milan, Italy, where he was ordained in 1964. By 1968 he was archdiocesan chancellor in Khartoum.

After serving as general secretary of the Sudanese bishops’ conference from 1973-80, Gassis studied canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington. He returned to Sudan in the early 1980s. His close U.S. friends include a former classmate, Arlington, Va., Bishop Paul Loverde.

When the Vatican informed Gassis he was to be the El Obeid diocese’s new apostolic administrator, he said, “I was not impressed. I knew conditions in the diocese were terrible, that the government was confiscating the church’s land. When I was told I was succeeding the archbishop, I at first refused.”

His fellow bishops pressed him to accept, and he said he would, but only for four years. He tried to resign after four years, but Rome said no. By then the man who didn’t want to be bishop was already pushing back against the quasi-democratic anti-Christian government.

In 1988, Gassis testified before a U.S. Congressional Committee on Africa about the worsening human rights situation in southern Sudan. That was the source of the major criminal charge against Gassis, leading to the government’s warrant for his arrest. Gassis stands accused of “ruining Sudan’s reputation before a foreign nation.”

In June the following year, Gassis was in Austria when his Catholic friend Bona Malwal, information minister in Sudan’s nominally democratic government, called him from Germany to say there’d been a coup.

“I said, ‘Thank God,’ ” recalled Gassis, “until Bona told me a radical Islamic regime had taken over. Malwal said, ‘These are the ones who are truly going to crucify us.’ ”

Malwal is now living in exile in London where he publishes the Sudan Democratic Gazette.

The government moved against Gassis’ priests, expelling the Maryknollers and Missionaries of Charity, and Comboni Missionaries, both priests and sisters, from the Nuba Mountains and Dinka communities. (The Dinkas, at about 1 million people, are the major tribal group in multitribal African Sudan.)

In the 1990s, Gassis, diagnosed with cancer, was treated at Georgetown University Hospital. He returned to Sudan in 1995. He did not immediately go to El Obeid but surreptitiously visited “my brother bishops” and dioceses across the country before telling them, “I’m going back to take care of my diocese.”

When in El Obeid, he said, “I remain as long as I can. I make it short but once there I try to make it open.” The openness infuriates Khartoum.

Two years ago he was no sooner back in El Obeid to be with his flock for Christmas than the bombing began. He stayed 10 days. Then he had to call Nairobi and order the plane back in to pick him up.

Gassis keeps the pressure on. He was in El Obeid this past Easter and “probably” will be back at Christmas, he said, opportunity and airfare permitting.

Arthur Jones’ e-mail address is ajones@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2000