KHARTOUM, Sudan, MARCH 22, 2003 (Zenit.org).- While Iraq grabs headlines worldwide, long-standing problems in two African countries, Sudan and Zimbabwe, remain unsolved.
Even as Sudanese peace talks resume in Kenya, the Khartoum government is continuing to violate a peace accord which it signed Oct. 15 with the rebel Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army and which it reaffirmed Feb. 4, according to a report released March 6 by the International Crisis Group. A key aim of government forces is to gain control of the oil fields of the Western Upper Nile.
The International Crisis Group observed that the lack of world attention to the government’s military action is behind the regime’s decision to renew the offensive. A similar campaign in December and January, also in violation of the peace pact, initially went ahead without any significant international response. Finally some countries protested, leading to another peace accord Feb. 4.
A Feb. 10 briefing by the International Crisis Group reported that eyewitness accounts of the December-January offensive confirm that government tactics included the abduction of women and children, gang rapes, ground assaults supported by helicopter gunships, destruction of humanitarian relief sites, and burning of villages.
Religious leaders, including Archbishop Paulino Lokudu Loru, president of the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, gathered in South Africa from Feb. 24-26 to reflect on the situation in Sudan.
The final declaration issued by the 8th Assembly of the Sudan Ecumenical Forum noted the progress made in the peace talks being hosted by the Kenyan government. At the same time the religious leaders drew attention to a number of violations of the peace agreements. They noted the continuing conflicts in the Western Upper Nile and Akobo regions, the ongoing mobilization on both sides, and the use of proxy forces to prolong the war.
The declaration also deplored the “prevailing culture of violence and impunity which reveal the urgent need for reconciliation and transformation at all levels of society.”
The statement called for all sectors of society to rally around the peace process. It also urged civic education and the introduction of democratic measures. It further requested that oil operations be halted until a comprehensive peace agreement is achieved.
The religious leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the peace process and to “addressing the challenges of the post-conflict situation: the need for reconciliation and the transformation of our society. We do so on the basis of our hope in the reconciliation of the world to God in our Lord Jesus Christ and the reconciliation which this brings to one another.”
In a March 7 press release, U.S.-based Freedom House, an advocacy group that supports religious rights, called upon the Khartoum government to respect the terms of the Sudan Peace Act, signed into law by American President George W. Bush last October.
The appeal organized by Freedom House saw about 100 religious leaders, rights activists and other officials send an open letter to the Sudanese government warning that it would be “making a strategic error of historic proportions” if it disregarded the terms of the peace act. The act proscribes penalties if Khartoum continues its war against the largely Christian and animist populations in southern Sudan. The letter called upon Khartoum “to take the steps necessary to bring a rapidly negotiated peace to the people of Sudan.”
Even as some human rights activists are hoping to use U.S. pressure to halt abuses by Sudan, others are criticizing European countries for their support of the military campaign. Writing March 15 in the Boston Globe, John Eibner, executive director of Christian Solidarity International, and Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group, criticized France for providing Khartoum with military intelligence for the prosecution of the conflict.
They also accuse France and Germany of supplying the helicopters that have been used for ethnic cleansing in southern Sudan’s oil fields. The writers affirmed that by helping to drive non-Muslims out of their homes, France and Germany aim at providing greater security for the investments of oil firms such as Total Fina, a French-Belgian company, and the German engineering giant Mannesmann.
In Zimbabwe, the decision by the Mugabe government to expropriate the properties of white farmers sparked off a crisis that is still under way. Although a constitutional referendum in 2000 rejected the expropriation policy, the government went ahead with it, invoking special powers and then ignoring a Supreme Court ruling of unconstitutionality, the Washington Times noted Jan. 14.
It turns out that a third of the expropriated farms have gone to President Robert Mugabe’s political supporters, and that the upheavals have led to 150,000 black farmworkers losing their jobs and homes. The expropriations also caused the gross domestic product to shrink 7.3% in 2001. About half the population now needs food aid.
The political arena is no less worrying, with frequent violence by ruling party activists against opposition party members, intimidation of judges and a campaign against any hostile media sources.
Churches are divided over what action to take, the U.S.-based Christian Science Monitor reported Feb. 26. One of the religious leaders most critical of government policy is Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo. He and several Protestant ministers have united to form Christians for Peace and Justice, a group of about 10 religious leaders and 100 members, the Monitor said.
But they remain a minority among religious leaders. Others have remained silent, and some have sided with the ruling party. Anglican Bishop Nolbert Kunonga of Harare, for example, has praised Mugabe in his sermons and last year tried to ban 19 parishioners from church property for their opposition to the prelate’s pro-government stances.
Recent signs, however, point to growing opposition by religious leaders against the government. Last month police detained some 20 clergy who were trying to protest in the capital, BBC reported Feb. 28.
The clergymen went to police headquarters carrying three wooden crosses seeking an apology for the arrest of one of their colleagues two weeks earlier at a church. They wanted to hand over a petition to police chief Augustine Chihuri asking him “to ensure that the police force in the country performs its duties with respect for the church and every citizen of Zimbabwe.”
That same day, Archbishop Ncube was cautioned by police about a service he held during which victims of torture gave testimonies. The archbishop said two plainclothes officers approached and warned him to keep his services strictly religious.
He responded that it was impossible to separate issues of hunger, economic hardships and violence from religion. “If people are suffering … the Church cannot excuse itself,” he told the police.
A few days earlier, in a sign of protest against government policies, a small group of religious leaders led by the archbishop marched into the Bulawayo cricket ground just ahead of a Cricket World Cup match with Australia.
The following day BBC reported that the clergymen were released, after having been charged with public order offenses under a tough security law. They are expected to be summoned to court. Whether the world will be paying attention, is another matter.