Travels with the battling baroness

ATLANTA -- As so often happens during her risky flights into Southern Sudan, Baroness Caroline Cox returned to England with a photograph that spoke volumes - even if she could not remember precisely when and where she took it.

It shows a naked, starving boy holding a tall cross, during an illegal rendezvous with older tribesmen. There are many demolished villages, since raiders serving the Khartoum regime keep trying to crush resistance in Christian and animist tribes. Cox and her Christian Solidarity Worldwide relief teams visit as many as they can.

The baroness turned and there he was. Click. This unforgettable acolyte had joined the remarkable collection of images this relentless human-rights activist uses as she circles the globe making her calm, yet fierce, appeals on behalf of persecuted people.

"In the cruel calculus of man's inhumanity to man, Sudan must rank amongst the greatest tragedies in the world today, with 1.3 million people killed and more than 5 million displaced by civil war," she said, speaking last week at The Gathering, a network of Christian philanthropists.

The room was silent for a moment. Cox already had shown her audience death, destruction, famine and slave markets.

"Look at this young boy, holding his cross," she said. "This is what our brothers and sisters in the persecuted church are doing - they are holding up the cross for all of us, out on the frontiers of faith."

Cox was named to the House of Lords in 1982, a bizarre twist in her career as a nurse, sociologist and gadfly in British academia. Today, she is a deputy speaker and, between trips into various corners of hell, the grandmother that many call the "battling baroness" pleads her case to politicians, bureaucrats, clergy, intellectuals, corporate executives and anyone else who crosses her path.

Her message is always the same. Look at these faces. Imagine what it would be like to experience what these believers have experienced. Pray for them. Help them. Learn from them. Do not forget them.

Click. Here is a starving mother and child in the Nuba Mountains. They could get food and medicine, simply by registering with government authorities - as Muslims. "It is one thing to choose martyrdom for yourself," said Cox. "It's another thing to choose it for your children. ... What an ultimate decision."

Click. Here is an exiled Catholic bishop during an illegal visit with his Sudanese flock. It meets under a tamarind tree, which he called a "beautiful cathedral, not built by human hands."

Click. Now she is in Burma, where military units called the Sa Sa Sa have terrorized the Karen and Karenni peoples, who are Christians, Buddhists and animists. Many victims were torched, while others had stakes driven through their ears. After worshipping in a jungle hut, Cox noticed that the church bell was a Burmese bombshell, cut in half.

Click. Now she is in Nagorno Karabakh, just north of Iran, which reporters describe as a cross between Switzerland and Vietnam. The capital city of Stepanakert was being pounded by 400 Azeri missiles a day, during one of Cox's many visits with the besieged Armenians. None of the missiles hit the solar panels that powered their emergency operating room. Her teams do not believe in miracles, said Cox. "We rely on them."

Click. Her last slide shows the ancient Orthodox Church of St. John the Baptist, framed in helicopter blades that form a giant cross. This reminds her of farmer she met near the ruins of a village called Getashen, after a wave of ethnic cleansing by troops from Azerbaijan. This Armenian fled into the mountains, where he found shelter under a blooming apricot tree. Then he looked up and saw a 5-year-old girl caught in its branches, sliced in half. He vowed revenge.

Two years later, the farmer wept bitterly as he told relief workers that he never could bring himself to keep his vow and take revenge on an Azeri child. The missionaries tried to comfort him, saying he had done the right thing and shown the true meaning of dignity.

The baroness said that she would never forget his response: "Dignity is a crown of thorns."