Remembering Sudan in Lent

On March 4, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Omar Ahmad Al Bashir, the president of Sudan. The warrant charges Bashir with individual responsibility on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes. Specifically, it alleges he is criminally responsible for a campaign of murder, rape, torture, pillage, and forcible transfer against the civilian, and largely Islamic, population of Darfur. The ICC alleges the campaign, conducted over the five- year period from April 2003 to July 2008, was planned at the highest levels of the Sudanese government. The attacks were carried out by the Sudanese armed forces, the Sudanese police force, the Sudanese national security service, and allied “Janjaweed” militias. The warrant alleges Bashir either coordinated the design of the campaign or, as head of state, used state agencies to implement the campaign.

The issuance of the warrant caused immediate comment from many quarters. The Sudanese Voice for Freedom, a D.C.-based group, welcomed it as long overdue, while the Organization of African Unity denounced it as biased against Africa. On the day before, The New York Times featured contending editorials from Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham and the president of Samaritan’s Purse, which engages in relief work in Sudan, and from Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and retired Anglican archbishop of Capetown, South Africa. Both men made strong arguments, nicely summarizing the views of those opposed to, and those in support of, the warrant.

Graham argued that issuing the warrant was a bad idea. The peace process, which resulted in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, partly owing to a strong push by the Bush Administration, Graham believed, would founder without Bashir. The fruit of that process – elections to be held this year in southern Sudan and a referendum to be held in 2011 on independence for the south – would be lost if Bashir were removed from office. It might also spur reprisals against aid workers and turn the country back to civil war.

Archbishop Tutu countered that justice required the issuance of the warrant and chided African leaders who protested it (after all, the victims were Africans, he noted): “As painful and inconvenient as justice may be, we have seen that the alternative – allowing accountability to fall by the wayside – is worse.”

Readers may recall that before the atrocities began in Darfur, they were widespread in the south of Sudan and in the Nuba Mountains (let’s call it “the south” for convenience’s sake). In fact, the explosion in Darfur essentially coincided with the winding down of the war in the south. Cynics will say that the Sudanese government signed the CPA, in part, to enable it to divert forces to Darfur.

The genocidal war against the people of southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains (recognized as such by the United States government) has been largely forgotten in the justified worldwide outrage over Darfur. But millions of innocent people were killed by the government in the prior war. The government, dominated by the radical National Islamic Front (NIF), targeted civilians, destroyed Christian churches, and revived the slave trade through a declaration of jihad against the “infidels” of the south.

Please note that I am not making an argument in favor of having the International Criminal Court, which many sage observers believe will be used, eventually, to advance a radical social agenda, and which, in any case, erodes national sovereignty. Rather the occasion of the issuance of the warrant for the president of Sudan is an opportunity to remember the dead, many of whom were true martyrs, dying for their Christian faith. Catholics should never forget, as John Paul the Great memorably put it: the age of the martyrs has returned. Being a Catholic in parts of the world such as Sudan can cost you your life. As the editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, Robert Royal, noted in his book, Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, the last century was particularly bloody, and persecution (rape, murder, brutality of all kinds) against Catholics and other Christians was widespread.

While it is true, as the African father Tertullian noted in the second century, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, American Catholics must not forget that it is not we who are shedding our blood. We should not rest easy in distant complacency. Whether the arrest of Bashir is wise at this time, I do not know; but I believe that nothing will change in Sudan until a government dedicated to an extremist Islamic ideology is replaced by one that respects its citizens’ right to religious liberty.

During this penitential season of Lent, it is appropriate to pause to remember these blessed dead. Though the world has forgotten them, we can remember, and we can pray for them and for others who are still subject to the lash and the sword.

William Saunders is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.