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RFC Staff Meets with Sudan Ambassador
Religious Freedom Coalition
June 16, 2005 8:44AM EST

              RFC staff participated in a roundtable discussion with Ambassador Khidir Haroun Ahmed of Sudan, hosted by the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.  His Excellency began the discussion with a basic overview of Sudanese history and culture, before explaining current and future plans to bring peace to the nation.  A new constitution, he promised, would be ratified by the end of the month, leading to a new national unity government.  Dr. John Garang, leader of the Southern Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) would then become vice-president, effective 7 July.  Unlike the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement in 1972, the SPLA will not be disbanded lest the Arab government renege on its power-sharing agreement.  Furthermore, 1,500 SPLA troops will be stationed in Khartoum.  10,000 United Nations troops will be stationed in the capitol and in the border regions to monitor the status of peace.


            The Khartoum government has agreed to an increase of African Union peacekeepers for the troubled Darfur region from 3,200 to over 7,000, with U.N. mechanisms in place to possibly raise this figure to about 12,000.  NATO has agreed to provide logistical assistance.  Darfur is about the size of Texas without any of its infrastructure and peopled by nomadic herders and farmers.  Amb. Ahmed criticized the stated purpose of the two rebel groups - marginalization - as being without merit, for the U.N. has labeled all of Sudan as being a Least Developed Country (LDC).  Thus, "ALL of Sudan is marginalized."  He stated that when the British government left Sudan in 1956 there was no infrastructure at all.  The problems being worked out now are simply ethnic and tribal strife.  His Excellency declared that there was never a religious element to the conflict in Sudan in that Christians targeted Muslims explicitly or Muslims attacked Christians; the proof is that 4.5 million southern Sudanese reside in the North [especially around Khartoum].   


            Naturally, your RFC representative followed up on the religious liberty element just as soon as the ambassador finished his speech.  The ambassador had earlier noted that the new constitution contained a bill of rights guaranteeing personal freedoms including that of religion.  We posed the question: "Given that the impetus of the civil war in the 1980s was the forced implementation of Islamic shari'a law, what role - either official or unofficial - will it play in the new government, especially considering the new guarantee to religious freedom?"  Amb. Ahmed responded that "shari'a is a very sensitive subject."  He could himself remember when President al-Mahdi promised to do away with shari'a in 1983, only to face a coup d'etat three years later to reestablish it.  This policy, of course, led to the second and most recent phase of civil war in which over two million have perished, the vast majority of whom were black Africans, and many of these Christian.  The ambassador noted that, ultimately, the role of shari'a was up to the electorate.  General elections in three years will determine the role of Islamic law, either officially or unofficially, according to the platforms of the candidates.  In the meantime, a system of one nation and two systems - in accord with the Machakos Agreement - would be implemented in which a separate legal system would be developed to apply to non-Muslims, including foreigners. 


            Fr. Keith Roderick of Christian Solidarity International questioned the government's efforts to stop the slave trade of southern black tribesmen by northern Arabs.  Significant efforts, replied the ambassador, by the Committee for the Eradication of the Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWAC) were underway to completely eradicate this evil.  The Sudanese government established the CEAWAC in 1999.  It has helped return several thousand men, women, and children, but this is still only a small percentage of the whole. 


            Most other forum participants - including the religious freedom arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, Oxfam America, the L.A. Times, etc. -  were present, but mostly interested in the situation in Darfur.  The religious element was never an issue in Darfur, said the ambassador, because there all are 100 percent Sunni Muslim.  Many of them follow the same Sufi mystic - Tijani.  As for the race issue - the conflict is often portrayed as Arab against black African - Amb. Ahmed stated that Darfurans are so racially mixed that one can seldom tell one from the other. 


            The two rebel groups fighting the government in Darfur represent three tribes out of 83 in the region.  Their complaint for taking up arms is marginalization by the government.  If Darfur was truly marginalized, argued the ambassador, then why have only three of the 83 tribes rebelled and not a larger number?  "Why would a Muslim-oriented government sue for peace with the Christian and animist South and then attack fellow Muslims?"  He denied any connection by the government with the notorious "Janjaweed" raiders, which he translated as "devils on horse/camel-back with a rifle."  This epithet was slander to a non-raider, apparently.  The central cause for the crisis is twofold: this is first of all a dispute between nomads and farmers.  Secondly, gangs and bandits - which "have nothing to do with the government" have attacked the police and created a security vacuum - which they have then filled.  Some of these groups have named themselves "Tora Bora" militia or "Pashmurga" to connect themselves with extremist conflicts in the greater Muslim world.  Finally, the ambassador criticized U.S. and European governments and NGOs for encouraging these rebels.  They see Western sympathy to the affected civilians as directed towards them as encouragement NOT to negotiate for peace but rather continue seeking regime change in Khartoum.  Nonetheless, with 70,000 dead and millions displaced, "justice must be done."  He pledged that the government would do its part.


            Although the ambassador painted a promising future of tolerance and respect, a southern Sudanese Christian present was somewhat less than confident that all would be free.  He noted that the millions of southern Sudanese in the North were forced there by the Khartoum army and allied militias, or else were war refugees trying to find a safe area.  Either way, they lived in shantytowns or refugee camps, dependent on international agencies for their welfare.  This gentleman's father and brother are there now.  The 1,500 SPLA troops in Khartoum would be there to protect their leader, John Garang.  The southern commander who signed the peace accords in 1972 was soon assassinated after his arrival in Khartoum - after his army was disbanded and thus ineffective.  NGOs operating in southern Sudan over the years have testified to the government's explicit Islamist intent against the Christians and animists in the South.  They even specifically targeted churches and Christian hospitals with their attack aircraft.  While it is certainly true that tribal politics play a large role in Sudan, religion is also a significant motivator of the land that bred the jihadist "Mad Mahdi," who murdered General Gordon in the 1880s.  Let us celebrate the peace agreement with our Christian brethren in the Sudan, but let us also keep a watchful eye on its implementation, an active voice in the call for justice and peace in Darfur, and prayerful support to see the process through.


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