Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I spent last Christmas in Sudan. As readers of this magazine know (see Paul H. Liben, “Murder in the Sudan,” August/September 1995, and Joseph R. Gregory, “African Slavery 1996,” May 1996), Sudan is a land of murder, slavery, and man-made famine, a land where a brutal and tyrannical government wages war on its own people, particularly the Christian and animist black ethnic groups of the south. In addition, the government intimidates and harasses those in the north who oppose its violations of human rights.

In particular, it has engaged in a long campaign to intimidate the Roman Catholic Church. It arrested the archbishop of Khartoum this past summer on trumped-up charges, and it regularly bulldozes the Catholic schools built in the refugee camps that ring the city of Khartoum. The government has also arrested, and apparently tortured, two priests whose “trial” is being widely protested by human rights groups. The government is actually threatening to crucify the priests.

As a human rights lawyer, I have been deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Sudan for several years. Two years ago, I met Macram Max Gassis, the Roman Catholic bishop from a besieged part of the country, when he came to Washington to protest the murder and enslavement of his people. Last fall he invited me to accompany him on his pastoral Christmas visit. The bishop’s diocese is huge, more than twice the size of Italy. He planned to visit two parts of his diocese where the suffering is very great, the Nuba Mountains and northern Bahr el-Ghazal.

We went first to the Nuba Mountains. (I must keep the precise location secret for security reasons.) The Nuba Mountains area, itself the size of Scotland, is particularly isolated. While most of the resistance to the government is located in the south, the Nuba Mountains are “north of the south,” toward the center of the country. The people there are, in effect, surrounded by government forces, and cut off from the main forces of the resistance. The Nuba Mountains are also located north of an area of oil reserves that the government, amidst failed domestic economic policies, is desperately trying to develop (in order to obtain foreign currency to pursue, in turn, the war against its citizens).

For these reasons, the government of Sudan is determined to “de-populate” the Nuba Mountains of the black Nuba people (to replace them with Muslim tribes). As detailed in numerous reports, such as the one from the U.S. Committee for Refugees in December 1998, the government’s aim is to force the people off their land and into “peace camps,” where they are forced to convert to Islam or starve. The government refuses to permit Operation Lifeline Sudan, the UN-sponsored famine relief operation, to come to the Nuba Mountains. Famine, then, is an ever-present threat. Consequently, Bishop Gassis works tirelessly to bring in supplies, including seeds and plows, salt, soap, and used clothing.

We flew into Sudan secretly, to a hidden landing strip, avoiding government garrisons along the way. Resistance soldiers, including one named Muhammad Ali, met our plane. They maintain the landing strip and arrange transportation for the supplies the bishop brings. The bishop, because of his tireless protest against the government’s practices, is considered an enemy by the government (which has issued a warrant for his arrest); for the same reasons he is a hero to the Nuba people themselves. Consequently, the resistance provides security for him whenever he is in the Mountains. Wherever we went, we were accompanied by armed guards, who also guarded our compound at night.

Once on the ground, it was necessary to unload quickly. Government airplanes patrol the skies, and would bomb us if we were spotted. We immediately embarked on an exhausting hike of several hours, over dry and rocky terrain, to reach the village/parish headquarters.

“Villages” in the Nuba Mountains actually consist of groups of huts scattered over a wide space. This is necessary to avoid being spotted and bombed by the government planes. The huts themselves are difficult to see because they are made of mud and reeds, and blend in well with the surroundings.

Shortly after our arrival, a group of the bishop’s parishioners arrived to greet him with singing, dancing, and drumming. This was repeated by other groups over the next few days. Sometimes they came from local villages, sometimes from villages many hours (even many days) away. Always there was joy. They sang unfamiliar songs and Christian hymns; they played on drums made from logs, coffee cups, and empty shrapnel shells; they carried wooden staves and homemade crosses. As I witnessed their joy at the presence of their “outlawed” bishop, the words of the gospel came to mind: “Blessed are you when men hate you, and revile you, and denounce your name as criminal, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and dance for joy” (Luke 6:22–23).

The following day we went on a long hike to see a new school that the bishop was having built. On the way, we crossed a river bed. Although the rainy season had ended barely a month previously, the river was already bone-dry. Finding water is difficult in the Mountains. Though the Nuba Mountain area is the ancestral home of the Nuba people, government troops and allied Muslim tribes have forced them higher into the mountains, away from their traditional pastures and wells. (The government poisons their wells whenever they are found.) Without tools, they are forced to dig wells by hand, though sometimes they are able to use pieces of shrapnel for digging. In this river bed, the people had dug such a well. It was about five feet deep. Since both people and animals use it, it is often contaminated, and the people suffer many ailments as a result.

The buildings of the new school are made of mud bricks, for camouflage. The school lacks chairs or desks; tree branches are used instead. The teachers are also in desperate need of books, paper, and pencils.

The teachers and students gathered to greet the bishop. Because of the government’s destruction of schools, there has been little education available in the area for the past six years, so some of these first and second graders are older than usual. The children sang “I’m so happy today” as a greeting for us. We planted trees to provide shade and protection, and as a symbol of hope. As one of the teachers told us, “What is important in the midst of civil war and persecution is education; without it, the young are lost. And they are the future of our people.”

Over the days leading up to Christmas, I had the opportunity to meet many of the people who lived in this area. About half are animists, with the remainder divided evenly between Christians and Muslims. They live at peace with one another, in what the bishop calls “living dialogue.” The commander of the resistance forces in the area is a Muslim, while some of his brothers are Christians. The people of the Nuba Mountains are, as the commander said, “a generation of reconciliation.” Since some Muslim children attend his school, the bishop is seeking a Muslim teacher for their “catechesis” class.

Here is the tragedy of Sudan in a nutshell. The government seeks to destroy the Nuba, whether Christian, animist, or Muslim. The Christians and the animists are “infidels,” while the local Muslims, being tolerant and peaceful, are not, from the government’s perspective, “good” Muslims. While the government tries, in the name of Islam, to destroy the Catholic Church, the Church itself, respecting the freedom of conscience of all the Nuba, ensures that the religious beliefs of Muslim children are respected in its schools. This is a war in which intolerance and hatred are pitted against love and “living dialogue.” As a Muslim who works with the Catholic school said, “If the Catholic Church is here, I will be free.”

The bishop celebrated Mass outdoors on Christmas Eve. During the Mass, it occurred to me that the first Christmas Eve in Palestine must have been much like this—rural landscape, a pastoral people, among “modest” dwellings, with the cattle “lowing” and the stars overhead (even a shooting star from the east).

On Christmas Day, all the people gathered in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul to celebrate Mass. This is a cathedral like few others. It is not a building; rather, it is composed of “pillars” of living sycamore trees that offer camouflage from government planes. Beneath the trees, in a hollow, we gathered with perhaps a thousand parishioners.

It was a truly festive occasion. The people were dressed in colorful (albeit tattered) clothes; many had flowers or decorative ribbons in their hair or had plaited their hair in striking designs. Some carried delicate wooden crosses; others had crosses sewn onto their clothing. One hundred were there to be baptized; forty to be confirmed. (During last Easter’s service, the bishop baptized five hundred, confirmed four hundred, and performed sixty marriages!)

During the service, the bishop received a message from the resistance. They had intercepted a message from the military—the planes had been sent to bomb. What to do? We were well-hidden beneath the trees; perhaps the planes would not find us. In the stillness, the bishop declared, “We will not let them disrupt the Mass.” He asked us to pray.

Terror bombing is literally an everyday occurrence in Sudan. As human rights groups have reported, the government routinely bombs hospitals and refugee camps in the south. In the Nuba Mountains, it seeks to sow terror by indiscriminately bombing civilian targets, hoping thereby to force the people off their land and into the “peace camps.” It drops cluster bombs and shrapnel bombs. It does so even on Christmas, and even during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Anytime one hears an airplane, one runs for cover—only the government has planes, and as one elder remarked, “If they see people dancing or gathering food or doing anything, they bomb.” The cease-fire that was in effect for most of Sudan until January 15 did not apply to the Nuba Mountains, allowing the government to focus its bombing on the area.

Luckily, the planes did not find us and the Mass was not interrupted. How differently one experiences the liturgy in a place such as this. Phrases, well-memorized, often-spoken, here penetrate the consciousness and sear the soul. “Lord, protect us from all anxiety.” “Let us pray for peace.” “Look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church.” On Christmas Day, the Old Testament reading was from Isaiah 52:7—“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.” These words were uttered and heard with great emotion and deep feeling.

The Christmas service ended with representatives of the people bringing gifts to the bishop—gourds, a rooster, corn—while singing, “You bring the light of the world; give us a blessing.” Here, in true Christmas spirit, people who had very little gave freely.

That evening, the celebration of Christmas continued. (There was no threat of bombing as the planes, faced with a long roundtrip to their home base, leave the area in mid“afternoon.) There was much dancing, accompanied by Christian hymns. There was wrestling, the Nuba people’s “national” sport. There was a medieval “mystery play,” retelling in local and humorous terms the story of Lazarus and the rich man.

We left the Nuba Mountains a few days later to travel to Bahr el-Ghazal. The day we left, the government bombed a Nuba village in the bishop’s diocese because, as he said, “it was flourishing.” “They bombed the church and the school. Now we must start all over.” When government troops overran another nearby village, they abducted the mother and children of the Muslim soldier I mentioned previously, Muhammad Ali.

There had been no priests in the area we visited in Bahr el-Ghazal for over twenty years. (The south of Sudan is roughly 45 percent Christian.) Thus, when our plane arrived, the runway was surrounded by hundreds of people. They sang “Hallelujah” and “Joy to the World”; different groups marched, carrying wooden crosses. A band greeted us. The people carried banners of welcome. One sign alluded to Isaiah 18:2 (which many scholars believe refers to the land of Cush or Nubia, which is Sudan)—“Your tall, smooth-skinned warrior people welcome you.” On our way to camp, people raced along, in front, behind, and beside our landrover.

The bishop met with his catechists. In addition to blankets and mosquito nets, they desperately need books and Bibles. As one said, “It has been so long, we have nearly forgotten the words.” Many of the catechists are women. This is not surprising, for one thing the bishop always emphasizes in his meetings with priests and catechists is the advancement of women (along with education and ecumenism). He also insists that girls attend his schools. As one woman remarked, “The women of this land were neglected until the Catholic Church arrived.”

The catechists perform the vital role of keeping the Church alive, ensuring it is nourished despite the persecution. Westerners may not realize it, but the church in Sudan has apostolic roots—it was founded by the deacon Philip when he evangelized the eunuch from the court of Candace, that is, Nubia (Sudan). Many Sudanese I spoke with were proud their country “was Christian before Europe was.” The invasion of Islam and the Arabs cut the church off from the other Christian churches, so that it withered. The catechists, such as those we met, are determined that this will not happen again. For over twenty years, they have kept the faith alive despite the absence of priests. They are, as the bishop said, “heroes of love.” Several have been murdered, most have been hunted, some have been tortured but escaped. One of the latter told me that his captors sneered at him, “Convert, or die like Jesus Christ.”

On the Church’s calendar, December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorating the slaughter of the martyr-children of Bethlehem by King Herod. That afternoon we met their modern counterparts—the “redeemed children.” These were Dinka children, from age nine to nineteen, who had been abducted and enslaved by Muslim militias or Muslim tribesmen, and who had either escaped or been “redeemed” from their captors for a price. Some had been abducted at ages as young as six; some had spent twelve years in slavery. Usually their parents had been killed before their eyes. All were now orphans; some had been so young when they were kidnapped that they could never find their way home; many did not know their given names. Some of the girls had been raped. All of the children had been grievously mistreated. In a scene whose horror is difficult to convey, the children showed us where each had been branded, as one would brand an animal, on the forehead or arm. (There are widespread reports that abducted children are also sold on an international slave market.)

We met with seventy of these children. The bishop takes care of them, making sure they are clothed, fed, housed, and educated. Despite their suffering, they radiate hope. To the bishop they sang, “You are our link to the Apostles, and bring us Christmas.”

One of the elders told me, “If we surrender to the government, we will be slaves in our own land. We have heard about human rights on the radio. Why, if there are human rights, does the world not help us?”

December of 1998 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, an occasion discussed in a statement by the Ramsey Colloquium, of which I am a member. (See “On Human Rights,” FT, April 1998.) The Declaration is, in its insistence on the dignity of each person, a protest against the barbarity of the first half of the twentieth-century. Yet, at the very end of that century, ethnic, cultural, and religious groups are being annihilated by the government of Sudan, while the world, busy celebrating the Universal Declaration, takes little notice. How does one explain such silence? What does one say to a victim?

All I can say is this—the situation in Sudan is not hopeless. The people there have not given up hope, and it would be a crime if we did. But we must also act. It would take relatively little effort by the UN or a coalition of concerned governments to stop the terror bombing and to insist that food be delivered wherever and whenever it is needed. (This could be accomplished, at minimal risk, by the establishment of a no-fly zone in the south and the Nuba Mountains. The Sudanese government has very few aircraft.) That would stop the threat of famine, and permit besieged peoples to rebuild and stabilize their lives. (A political settlement might be possible, but it will have to be a just peace, not a cloak for tyranny by the government of Sudan.) It seems to me that, if the world cannot find the courage to do this, then the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may be merely words on paper after all.

William L. Saunders is a human rights lawyer in Washington, D.C.

(Editors’ Note: The Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., is conducting a “Campaign of Conscience” for Sudan by organizing campus protests, prayer vigils, and a mass e-mail campaign to Congress. For more information, call 202-296-5101.)