Sudan: "Co-Living and a Culture of Peace"
Report by Samuel Rizk
"The Sudanese conflict, north-south, has caused untold deaths and human suffering on both sides. This has not been due to lack of early warning, but rather of the lack of political will to intervene at an appropriate time," said Rev. Adi Ambrose, President of Sudan Pentecostal Churches, to the gathering of nearly 50 people representing churches, Islamic organizations, NGOs, the Sudanese government, as well as members of the Arab Working Group on Muslim Christian Dialogue from Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. The war that has raged for nearly four decades, with intermittent pauses, continues even as formal and informal encounters seek a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict between the mostly-Muslim North and the Christian/Animist South. While analysts claim that the war is mostly about natural resources and raw materials in the South, the issue of religion has come into play since the Northern government worked to implement Islamic Law- Shari'a -in a predominantly Christian South. It is in this context that the Arab Working Group on Muslim Christian Dialogue (AWGMCD) made the visit to Khartoum, Sudan from 3-5 May, 2003.
The AWGMCD, having established its Covenant on One Living through a series of conferences, seminar and workshops, has been looking to put its experience to the test in conflict situations. Sudan is one place it can move from the "theoretical" to the "tangible"-from behind closed doors to areas of conflict. The main objective of the visit was to help promote interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Sudan for the purpose of encouraging a peaceful and just resolution of the conflict, and for promoting principles of co-living as the norm rather than the exception. The organizers hoped to establish a forum of exchange between conflict parties, based on religious principles but mindful of the social, cultural and political environment, in order to help advance the process of negotiation for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Those who attended the 3-day seminar included official government representatives, peace activists, grassroots representatives from areas of conflict, clergy and Islamic religious representatives, representatives of ecumenical organizations, intellectuals and university professors. This rich mix of Sudanese participation, men and women, along with participants from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, helped create an environment of dialogue that was frank, direct, emotional yet realistic, and at times aggressive, but mutually accepted by all parties.
The Arab Working Group was given the task of presenting the seminar with ideas on the meaning of dialogue and expectations from such activities in light of their experiences in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. This included presentations on the role of Christians and Muslims together in situations of conflict to bring about a peaceful resolution and to promote long-lasting reconciliation based on principles of one living, mutual respect, equal citizenship, and the maintenance of the dignity and rights of all conflict parties, at all levels of the conflict, as exemplified in the Covenant for One Living .
Presenting the Lebanese experience, Mr. Kamil Mnassa noted the pain and suffering that a multi-confessional society could suffer. While there were international powers involved in the Lebanese civil war, Lebanese factions were not only tools or agents, but also active accomplices and aggressors against other Lebanese people. Power and interest-based politics also played a role in destabilizing Lebanon's multi-confessional society. The process of rebuilding after civil war, he said, is tedious and hard, but declarations of acceptance of the existence of the "other", and of the nation, in its diversity, is what has enabled Lebanon to maintain its unity in diversity.
Sayyid Hani Fahas, a Shi'ite cleric from Lebanon, noted that the tense political environment was not able to keep parties of dialogue from attempting to close the social and confessional gaps created by the war. In fact, at many times, dialogue groups were more credible reconciliatory parties since they did not have political or material interests to gain. Mr. Mohammad Sammak further noted that interfaith dialogue in Lebanon was not only a local phenomenon, and that there had been many global overtures for interfaith dialogue.
Father Nicolas Baalbaki from Syria also presented the positive co-existence experience from Syria involving mutual understanding and acceptance between Christians and Muslims, but noted that periods of ignorance, militancy and violence cannot be ignored lest they lead to sectarianism and violent civil war. Along the same line, Father Philothaous Farag, a Coptic monk from Sudan, spoke of the many positive aspects of interfaith co-existence in Sudan through its ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic diversity. He also noted some positive government laws for religious institutions that provided them with free utilities and services.
However, he did not hesitate to list some of the challenges for both the Sudanese society and the government-challenges that have further aggravated civil strife in Sudan. These included militancy, attempts to "cancel the other", the forced implementation of Islamic Shari'a on Christians, smear campaigns in the media against Christians and Christian symbols, and a general ignorance of "the other". For all these reasons and more, balance in Sudanese society had been disrupted, and many bright people were forced to immigrate, mostly Christians, for political, religious, or economic reasons. Dr. Hassan Mekki, a Sudanese intellectual, added that globalization of culture and politics, as well as continued economic impoverishment of marginalized and helpless communities have all had a disturbing effect on social peace and harmony in Sudan. But he stated that pillars of Sudanese society remain strong: homogeneous city structures such as that of Khartoum, flexible citizenship legislation that does not exclude people on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion, and that Sudanese society in general is diverse, tolerant and not hateful or fearful of "others". Rev. Enock Tombe Stephan, General Secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches, added his "sincere hope to see that some of the difficulties facing the Sudanese people in general and Christians in particular will be addressed as we move towards co-living and peace with the support of our friends and neighbors."
Following the tolerant, official, and "beautiful" speech of the Minister of Religious Affairs of Sudan about the efforts of the government to promote tolerance and co-existence, participants from the Christian South responded by thanking him for the initiative, but reminded him that they had heard this "talk" before and that nothing had been implemented on the ground to alleviate the suffering of the people of the south. More specifically, they stated that their right to land, their right to property for building places of worship, education for their children, equal opportunities for jobs, the elimination of Shari'a for Christian citizens and an overall dignified life had not yet been observed.
This kind of openness about the situation in Sudan and the demands of Christians in the South was also the case during two meetings that the Arab Working Group had with the consultants to the President of Sudan on Islamic Law as well as the Vice President of the country. The visit by the team prompted the consultants to the president on Islamic law to promise that during the next visit of the team the situation would be transformed into a more positive experience or interaction where such tough issues will have been addressed. This was seen as a significantly positive outcome of the visit. During the audience with the vice president of the country and some ministers and administrators, Rev. Jarjour presented the Arab Working Group's Covenant for One Living as a tool that can be used by the Sudanese people for dialogue on co-existence and cooperation. The vice president also shared his hope for peaceful reconciliation would take place and showed appreciation for the team's visit to Sudan.
During the visit, the Sudan Inter-Religious Council (SIRC), one of the hosting organizations of the seminar, was officially launched. Its objectives include strengthening the values of tolerance, co-existence and cooperation, undertaking dialogue and extending ties among religious leaders in Sudan in order to promote a culture of peace, protecting religious freedoms and places of worship, providing long-term strategic plans to encourage peaceful and positive relations among different religious groups, and recommending to the state policies and legislation that will protect the rights and values and symbols of religions.
Finally, there have been many gestures of goodwill that support such inter-faith initiatives. The World Health Organization in Egypt offered the travel tickets to the Egyptian participants and the Council for International People's Friendship hosted the meeting. Furthermore, Sudanese participants appreciated the participation of Arab Christians from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. During earlier meetings, Sudanese Christians had accused Arab Christians of siding with the Muslim north against them because of the similarity of culture and Arab background. This was certainly not the case this time, and they expressed their gratitude for the sincerity of the participation of Christians from other Arab countries, for the credibility that their non-Western origins gave to their views, and for the involvement of the Middle East Council of Churches in strengthening ecumenical ties with churches in Sudan.
First appeared in MECC NewsReport , Autumn 2003.