Breaking the Silence on Sudan

Every month or so, Bona Malwal slips over the border into his south Sudanese homeland.

There are, in this age of satellite telephones, safer ways for an exiled journalist to contact his sources during one of the world's longest-running civil wars. But Malwal keeps going home - to see the bulldozed churches, to interview grieving parents, to document the torture.

The government declared him an enemy of the state in 1989. The Roman Catholic activist was writing stories that outsiders said were too outrageous to be true - reports that militias working for the National Islamic Front regime were kidnapping women and children from Christian and animist homes and selling them as slaves. Many still ignore the facts.

"Why is it that the Christian world continues to ignore the conflict in the Sudan?", asked Malwal, speaking last week to a conference for Christians in journalism at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. "Why doesn't the Christian world see ... that this conflict is really about whether Christianity will be able to survive in the south Sudan and in the rest of Africa?"

Finally, the work of Malwal and other human-rights activists is yielding results in the media and political arenas. Last summer, the Baltimore Sun conducted a fact-finding mission in the South Sudan. Traveling with a team from Christian Solidarity International, the journalists sought the most basic form of evidence. They paid a slave trader the equivalent of $1,000 -- the value of 10 cows -- for two young Africans and then reunited them with their families.

Here is how reporters Gilbert Lewthwaite and Gregory Lane described the moment of truth in a village marketplace: "Before us ... is a sight to chill the human heart: a dozen young boys, their bodies caked with dust, their eyes downcast. If we were Sudanese slaveholders, we might use such children for herding or for household chores. ...We might give them Arabic names and convert them to Islam. We might use a girl for sexual pleasure, perhaps as a wife."

Religion and race are key factors in these crimes. The northern two- thirds of the Sudan is ruled by a rebellious Islamic regime led by Arabs. The leaders in southern Sudan are African Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians. However, the most recent issue of Malwal's London-based Sudan Democratic Gazette noted a United Nations report that the northern regime's recent violations of religious freedom have included the increased "harassment and arrest of prominent religious figures belonging to the traditional Sudanese Islamic orders."

As always, politics and trade loom behind the clashes over faith and tribal ties. These issues will return to the news on Tuesday, when Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia introduce the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act of 1997. This follows months of lobbying by conservatives outraged by reports of growing persecution of Christians in China and other Communist lands and in at least eight countries led by Islamic regimes. The bill has a number of prominent Democratic cosponsors and specifically calls for increased efforts to protect two other religious groups -- Buddhists in Tibet and Baha'is in Iran.

The legislation includes planks establishing a White House office on religious persecution, stopping non-humanitarian U.S. aid and loans to sanctioned nations and requiring the U.S. to actively oppose international aid to such countries. It would make sanctioned-country status a "serious factor" in world trade issues -- such as divisive votes of the status of China. The bill also gives the Sudan the same kind of treatment previously granted to South Africa. To underline its already bold-letter intentions, the bill calls for sweeping changes in the Sudan by Christmas Day.

"The goal is to make Sudan the poster boy for incarnate evil," said Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute. "Otherwise, we're telling the world that it's open season on Christians."

Help cannot come too soon, stressed Malwal, after his speech. Right now, his tribesmen have few churches left in which to celebrate Holy Days.

"There are is not a single church left standing in the south Sudan," he said. "They are the first thing that the northern armies destroy. ... People meet under a tree. The buildings have been destroyed, but the church is still there."