Christian Right might inflame war, observers fear
Human rights/religionBy Matthias Muindi
Fears are rising that if American evangelicals continue to focus exclusively on the religious dimensions of the Sudanese war, there could be a backlash from Islamic fundamentalists, thus intensifying the conflict. Analysts, mainstream Church officials, and aid workers are worried that the stance taken by the Christian Right might jeopardize relief operations and precipitate a humanitarian crisis in Sudan. They note that the Americans are oversimplifying a war that has economic, cultural and political elements.
Since last year, interest in Sudan by Americans has mushroomed largely due to campaigns led by missionary groups and U.S. based African-American churches, resulting in an unusual alliance of right-wing politicians identified with the Republican Party and members of the Democratic Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
In recent weeks, American evangelicals have called for tough measures to deal with the Islamic purists in Khartoum. The lobby has been vehement in its view that the regime of President Omar el Bashir is evil since it is persecuting Christians and condoning the capture and sale of slaves. The televangelists argue that Sudan is in turmoil since the country's five million Christians have refused to be Islamised by the Muslim majority. Therefore, the conflict - rather than being a humanitarian catastrophe - is a Holy War in which Christians are under siege simply because of their faith. They further claim that the war is an extension of a wider conflict between Islamic fundamentalists allied to anti-American terrorists and “peaceful” Christians not averse to American hegemony.
But while peace campaigners, human rights activists, Church personnel, and relief workers agree that the current attention on Sudan is welcome, they caution that it is not simply a religious duel as the evangelicals would want use to believe.
“This is not Christian versus Muslim or African versus Arab, but a struggle for self- determination against a fundamentalist dictatorship," concurred Salih Booker of Africa Action, a Washington think-tank in an interview with another London newspaper, The Independent. That is also the line taken by Catholic Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, who recently led a tour by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) to Sudan: "From our discussions ... we have found ... that this conflict cannot be characterised in simple terms. All attempts to reduce the war to any single factor distorts reality and does not serve the cause of peace," he says. In the conflict, some southerners are in the ranks of the government army while there are many Muslims living in the south. At the same time, southerners are fighting against one another.
The religion-is-the-cause campaign climaxed on March 22 when Republican Dick Armey, House Majority Leader and ally of the evangelicals, called Sudan a horror without parallel. “It is the only place in the world in which religious genocide is taking place. People are being tortured, mutilated and killed solely because of their Christian faith," he said. It was an echo of this year's annual report by the U.S. US Committee on International Religious Freedom, which accused Khartoum of being "the world's most violent abuser of the right to freedom of religion and belief." But Chuol Deng, Sudan's State Minister for Foreign Affairs, countered that there is a “prevalence of religious tolerance in Sudan.”
Such assurances however, don't cut it with televangelists, who are busy “redeeming” slaves in Sudan. The latest is Rev. Al Sharpton, an eminent black civil rights crusader who until April this year had never bothered with the Sudanese conundrum. But on April 14, he returned to New York from Sudan, saying: "We saw with our own eyes what is going on in Sudan. It is clear to us that the practice of slavery is going on.” Sharpton, who claims to have talked with some of the slaves, promised to return to Sudan with Coretta King, widow of slain civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, and black corporate leaders to buy the freedom of more slaves.
But the greatest performance was by Rev. Franklin Graham, son of famed TV evangelist Billy Graham, during an April 14 trip to Liu near the southern city of Juba. Similar tours had also been made by other evangelical organizations such as Voice of the Martyrs, Safe Harbour, and Frontline Fellowship. Aboard Graham's executive jet was a four-member TV crew, which coordinated his every move. In addition to delivering relief supplies, Graham said he was also bringing the pledge that American Christians would help the southerners fight back. "This country has declared a Jihad (Islamic holy war) on its own people," he said. "It's wrong. It's wicked. And it's evil. For me as an outsider, the freedom of worship seems the main issue. Instead of being converted to Islam, these people have decided to fight. It is David against Goliath." Ramadan Yasin, a relief worker in Southern Blue Nile Province, fears aggressive evangelism such as this and says that it will cause problems. "Our area was in harmony, now people are hating Islam. We don't want people to disturb the peace," he told the Financial Times.
A friend of the Bush family, Graham has been described as a business-minded self-publicist and was among the evangelists who attended a key meeting with State Department officials in March, which discussed Sudan. Together with David Saperstein of the Reform Judaism Social Action Centre and prison evangelist Chuck Colson, he has assembled a powerful lobby to amplify the religious angle of the war. Samaritan's Purse, a charity that Graham is involved in, runs a hospital in Lui, an area controlled by the SPLA. With the cameras trailing behind, Graham made a swift tour of the hospital, rarely talking to the semi-naked Sudanese women or wounded men. At the end of his tour, Graham stood in front of the camera and said: "As soon as I get back (home) I'm going to share what I've seen here. Khartoum should be hit with the full force of American military strikes. Why not? These people are just as evil as Saddam Hussein."
Some observers are wondering whether the Christian Right is serious about ending the war or is just using the war to attract publicity and money. "They (evangelists) can smell the money coming," one relief worker in Kenya told the Independent. Observers also note that some leaders - particularly Rev. Al Sharpton - could be using the Sudanese conflict to build political careers back home. “We know Sharpton too well. There has to be something in this for him,” wrote the New York Post. The paper stated that Sharpton is not really interested in ending the war, but is using it to create a political platform from which he might fill the shoes of Rev. Jesse Jackson, now soiled by a sex scandal. Beth Gilinsky, president of the Jewish Action Alliance in New York and a long time critic of Khartoum concurs: "Sharpton has failed to come on board the Sudan slavery issue for a decade. Clearly, now that Jesse Jackson has been thoroughly discredited, there is an attempt to sanitize Al Sharpton."
The Sudanese war is 18-year-old news and the U.S. has traditionally shown little interest until now. This is why there is fear that the religious right might not be sincere in its efforts to see a just end to the war. Some have opined that the evangelists - who are also directors in large corporations that back the Bush administration - might be eyeing Sudan's oilfields. Many are waiting to see what action Bush will take. Says Elliott Abrams, chairman of the US Committee on International Religious Freedom: "The great unknown is the administration's attitude. Some of the things said during the campaign suggest the administration wants to be careful of crusades. On the other hand, the president is an evangelical with close ties to Franklin Graham and Chuck Colson."
Meanwhile, American Catholic Bishops have taken a more moderate and realistic line, recommending that Bush name a special envoy for Sudan as the first step. The U.S. used to have a special envoy for Sudan under President Bill Clinton, but the post has been vacant since Bush took office. However, the Bush administration is not that keen and recently installed a humanitarian coordinator for Sudan instead. That was a few days after Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the issue of the special envoy was being considered seriously.
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