Religion's Double-Edged Effect on Sudan

Conclusions of Book Written on Troubled Nation

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ROME, OCT. 31, 2002 ( Religion has played a key part in the historical conflicts of Sudan, but at the same time it could be an instrument to resolve them.

This is the conclusion of professor Richard Gray of the University of London, co-editor of the book «Religion and Conflict in Sudan» (Paulines), which is a collection of addresses given during a conference on Sudan at Yale University. The book was presented Tuesday in Rome at the headquarters of the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies.

Basically, the authors of the book study the influence of religion and the impact of the civil war on religious communities, whether Christian, Muslim or traditional native creeds.

The talks were given at Yale in May 1999. Co-editor Yusuf Fadl Hassan, vice chancellor of the University of Khartoum, wrote a chapter on the role of religion in conflicts, with special emphasis on Islam.

Gray, professor emeritus of African history at London University, told ZENIT that Sudan was a «tolerant» country, but this tolerance has gradually given way to a lack of dialogue and an obstacle for the normal life of Christians and other communities.

It «is true that in some cases ideologies based on religion have explained and legitimized conflicts,» Gray said. But religion is not the only element that explains the current war, he insisted.

Nor are Christians the only ones hurt by the system, says Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald. The archbishop, who is the new president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said he believes that Muslims also suffer the intolerance of political authorities.

Archbishop Fitzgerald suggested that the book’s title be changed to «Religion and the Resolution of Conflicts in Sudan,» referring to the capacity of religion to resolve and pacify conflicts.

Lillian Craig Harris, another contributor to the book, speaks about the possibilities for forgiveness and dialogue. This author lived in Sudan for four years as the wife of the British ambassador. She was successful in bringing together a network of Muslim and Christian Sudanese women.

Father Michael Ayuso of the Missionaries of Africa (the White Fathers), who knows Sudan very well, explained that the conflict is destroying the country and that «religion has been used to promote non-religious objectives.»

Father Justo Lacunza, president of Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, refers to religion as a possible means to reconcile a country in need of peace.

Since independence, this African country — the largest in terms of size — has been lacerated by civil wars. More than 100 languages are spoken in Sudan, a country where three great religions and hundreds of ethnic groups coexist.

United by the Nile but separated by history and very different cultures, Sudan enjoyed peace only from 1972 to 1982. Since then, a powerful Islamization of the country, a marked division between the North and the South, as well as oil, hydraulic and other problems have turned it into the country with the longest war in the African continent.

The South, where Christians and animists live, is the most damaged area. Under a recent agreement between the Khartoum government and the Sudanese Popular Liberation Army rebels, food aid will be allowed in the area at least until December.

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