Monday, April 09, 2007


I've returned safe and sound from my visit to the East African country of Sudan. Once the ancient kingdom of Kush (also known as Nubia and Meroe), Sudan is the largest country by area in Africa as well as in the Arab world. As we saw in an excursion into the desert, the ancient Nubian civilization was a lot like the later Egyptian one that built the Great Pyramid. We saw smaller but older pyramids in Sudan. They just loom out of the desert with absolutely no distracting tourists around them. In fact, there’s nothing around them but sand! (See my soon-to-be-posted Sudan video gallery at

While our home staff enjoyed a much-deserved Holy Week vacation, I had jetted first to London, then to Amman, Jordan, and finally to my destination of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. This surprisingly modern city is situated at the point where the Blue and White Nile rivers meet. My hotel sat right at the apex, its front door facing the white waters and it’s back facing the blue waters.

I was one of five members of a special delegation from the Washington, DC based Institute on Religion and Public Policy founded by my friend, Joseph Griebowski. Joe is a highly educated, experienced and gifted international advocate for fundamental human rights and religious liberty. I may be the Institute’s token Evangelical / Conservative board member, but if so, I serve happily!

The purpose of this seven-day mission was to talk to members of Khartoum’s new Unity Government about the progress (or lack thereof) of human rights and religious freedom since the January 2005 signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The CPA was signed by the Government of the Republic of the Sudan and the break-away Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Sudan People’s Liberation Army. This instrument was aimed at ending a civil war between the Islamic North and the principally Christian South. Atrocities were admitted by both sides, but the North is still widely blamed for a genocidal campaign against non-Arabs in the southern areas of Kordofan, Blue Nile and Abyei. Notwithstanding today’s exclusive focus on another conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur state, it’s the South where the worst effects of the internal conflict were felt.

The Institute got involved in Sudan because of Joe Griebowski’s long-time friendship with Sudan’s former ambassador to the United States and now its foreign minister, His Excellency Khidir Haroun Ahmed. “Kadir,” as we came to call him, is one of the most congenial men I have met in Washington. Now based in Khartoum, he was our official host and guide while in country. Helping him with our visit were two attaches named Omar and Abdulrachim, brilliant and capable young men who, like their boss, speak impeccable English.

Despite my initial apprehensions about everything from security to food, I never felt insecure or got sick. (Well, except for some prayer-laden jitters about the flight from Khartoum to Darfur.) I will say this was one of my more difficult international missions. My first experience in what I call “religious diplomacy” was to Lebanon at the height of its civil war 25 years ago. Russian Ketusha rockets whizzed over our heads. I was also in Moscow days after Russian tanks fired on their own federal government headquarters, called, oddly, The White House. Boris Yeltzin was still holed up inside. And I’ve preached the Gospel in plenty of Islamic countries where it is illegal to do so. But this trip to the Sudan was the most spiritually intense and challenging mission I have taken. Still, there were hopeful signs both in the government and among the people:

1) The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) appears to be working. Things were generally calm and people were, on the whole, happy. While police and military were visible, there is not the oppressive feel of a police state or of a country at war.

2) Much to my surprise, there are Christians in high government office. This is a result of the power sharing element of the CPA. Certain seats must go to the southern religious minorities, the largest of which is Christian. To be sure, some of these are apparatchiks and are Christian in name only, but others demonstrate a serious faith and sincere love for their country and her people. There is also a prayer breakfast movement in Sudan. (This is the same one behind the annual National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington.) It wasn’t clear to me if a breakfast has already been held, but I was told President Omar Hassan al Bashir plans to host one in the near future. (Incidentally, while we had an appointment with President Bashir, he took an unexpected trip to Senegal that would have forced us to stay in country two more days. Because of Easter and family commitments, the delegation decided to forgo rescheduling and wait until a follow-up visit is made in June.)

3) There are churches in Sudan, mostly in the South, but even in Khartoum. They do suffer significant discrimination, but it doesn’t appear (nor were we told by Christians there) that the church suffers egregious persecution. It’s more like in Egypt and other “progressive Islamic countries” (a relative term). Christians are tolerated, but just barely by the government bureaucracy, and they are limited in their freedoms, especially evangelization. Obtaining permission for building new churches is nearly impossible. Sudan also bans all forms of “proselytizing.” Conversion from Islam to any other religion, particularly to Christianity, is theoretically punishable by death. However, there are no contemporary reports of such. Still, the Sudanese people get along very well with one another. Christians and Muslims enjoy easy friendships, business partnerships and even live together in the same houses.

4) Darfur, where the eyes of the world are now focused, is more complex than I imagined it but far less chaotic. The situation boils down to a very long-standing independence streak in the Darfurian culture. It was once its own kingdom until brutally subjugated by the British and incorporated into the Sudan. Unlike the South, Darfur is overwhelmingly Muslim, but ethnically non-Arab. Separatist rebels have been staging attacks against the central government for four years. Khartoum has struck back by bombing, among other targets, civilian villages where rebels are believed to hide. It’s principally the fear of being caught in this crossfire that has driven so many Darfurians to refugee camps. (Estimates are from hundreds of thousands to 2.5 million.) We visited one of the main camps outside Nyala, the capital city of South Darfur state. We were told by the camp manager there had been up to 30,000 refugees there, but the number is down to 13,000. The camp was well run, relatively clean and orderly and there were numerous non-governmental aid groups working there, including American-based and Christian World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse. (I was distressed, though, to find a Saudi Arabian umbrella group coordinating all aid programs.)

In a meeting with tribal leaders at the camp, we learned what life is like there. These mostly agrarian people miss their farms but feel safer in the camps. The women we met said they were afraid to go out into the bush surrounding the camps to collect necessary firewood because of rapacious gangs of marauders who wander the countryside. While there is widespread reporting that victims blame the Khartoum regime for arming such gangs, nothing like that was said to us by the refugees. In fact, it appeared that the government was cooperating in every way with camp managers.

The Darfur Peace Agreement was signed between the government and rebels in May, 2006, but has failed to calm world concern for the refugees now in the camps as well as the fear of future attacks that place unarmed civilians at risk.

My estimation, from an admittedly limited perspective, is that while any number of civilian deaths is a humanitarian disaster and completely unacceptable, the numbers being used in reports (and a lot of Darfur fundraising campaigns) are grossly exaggerated for effect. There is also a dearth of information on just what is really going on in Darfur. The so-called janjaweed civilian militias blamed for much of the raping, pillaging and killing of innocents are not formally connected to the Khartoum government and never have been.

There is no doubt many in the camps went there to escape injury and death. But these many years into the crisis, it appeared there was a growing problem of people seeking refuge simply from the hard work required to plant and harvest their fields. That is a problem for any country, including the Sudan. The camp inhabitants we talked to now seem to suffer from a sort of torpor caused by sedentary routines and from being separated from their families. There’s a lot more to be said on this, but space doesn’t allow. Suffice it to say the situation is complex, involving many different groups and individuals, and that American or UN solutions don’t always work among historically tribal societies. The situation demands another fresh look before continuing on tired old paths.

My overall impression after visiting Sudan and Darfur is that there is a lot more for us to learn. 20-second sound bites or video clips can't do justice to what is happening. There are both victims and victimizers on all sides of this humanitarian problem. Tribal turf wars contribute to the tensions. No one side has the total solution. The CPA with its power sharing component and the Darfur Peace Agreement are auspicious beginnings towards a resolution. The real missing piece is pressure on the Darfur rebels to come to the table and negotiate, as have all other parties. Without such pressure, there’s absolutely no incentive for the rebels to cease fighting. Both their moral support and financial support are ensured by keeping the conflict going.

The one very certain message I came away with was from the leaders of the oldest and only Evangelical church in the national capital of Khartoum. They told me the current sanctions and threatened future sanctions will only “plunge the country into darkness” and place all Christians at greater risk. We observed the nearly ubiquitous Chinese presence in Sudan, from petro-chemical plants to hotels and office buildings, to the same inexpensive kitsch we see here in America. The atheist Chinese regime is buying Sudan. It’s an odd partnership, Islamists and communist atheists. I’m afraid, though, our sanctions are not just hurting the Christians (which is bad enough), but is thrusting Sudan deeper into a dependency on the communist Chinese. That can’t be good for us, for Christians in Sudan or anyone else. I will ask the President to reconsider his call for increased sanctions.

Thank you for your prayers (they sustained me) and your generous financial gifts that made this momentous trip possible. So much good has already come of it, including new friendships among Sudan’s top government leaders. But the most moving part of this otherwise grueling experience were the tears of one of our hosts as we left. He said he was “really touched in his heart” by the way we conducted ourselves. He also told me in an aside that he really liked “the way I talked about God. It was very deep. I never heard anything like that.”

Enough said for now. I’ll post more later.

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