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Strife Over Sudan's Plight

Muslims say they are unfairly blamed for human rights abuses that have nonreligious roots. Christian groups counter that Islamic 'propaganda' whitewashes atrocities.

May 06, 2000|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

When a U.S. interfaith commission this week named Sudan as the "world's most violent abuser" of religious freedom, it stepped smack into one of the nation's most prickly challenges to Muslim-Christian relations.

In its first annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom detailed "genocidal atrocities" by the Sudanese military regime against civilians: bombing schools and hospitals, preventing humanitarian aid from reaching the needy and commissioning Arab tribes as militias to kill, rape and enslave rival villagers.

Religion, the commission found, was a major factor in the strife: an Islamist regime demolishing Christian churches, reportedly engaging in forced Islamicization and declaring its intent to impose shariah, or Islamic law, even in the mostly non-Muslim south.

Many Muslims, however, suspect that the egregious plight of Sudan--one of Africa's poorest countries, pummeled by nearly four decades of civil war--is being exploited by some Christians to vilify Islam.

They argue that the strife is rooted in complex ethnic and tribal rivalries, competition for scarce land and water resources and other factors in addition to religion. Tribal raiding, enslavement and marauding have taken place in both north and south, among both Muslims and non-Muslims, many experts argue.

Muslim activists complain that religious figures--ranging from evangelist Pat Robertson to Christian Solidarity International representative John Eibner--have oversimplified the issue, wrongly blaming Islam for the problems.

"Americans, including scholars, are imputing the faults of the present regime to Muslims in general," said Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil, a former Sudanese parliamentary speaker and Muslim lawyer who fled Sudan after the 1989 military coup and now lives in Maryland.

Although the present regime undoubtedly uses religion as a recruiting tool, he said, its undeniable human rights abuses are "not Islamic in any sense of the word. . . . The Koran is filled with verses about compassion and justice."

For their part, some Christian activists say that Muslim "propaganda" whitewashing the atrocities has all but silenced mainstream liberal churches from taking on the issue for fear of being accused of "Muslim bashing." Human rights abuses against Christians and others in the name of jihad should be at the heart of Muslim-Christian dialogue, but such topics remain taboo, Eibner said.

Some Muslim organizations "want to give the false impression that all of this is anti-Muslim, which is not true," said Eibner, whose organization claims to have freed more than 20,000 slaves since 1995 in a controversial slave redemption campaign. "When we go to Sudan, we are working on behalf of the human rights of Christians, Muslims and animists."

The mutual unease and suspicion have so far stymied most efforts to move what is often billed as a new era of interfaith relations from rhetoric to reality on the issue of Sudan.

Khalil declined an invitation to testify before the U.S. commission during its hearing on Sudan, for instance, because of the preponderance of speakers from what he called "the anti-Muslim church lobby." No American Muslim organizations were given the podium. As a result, only one Muslim among more than a dozen speakers testified--exacerbating what many Muslims believe has been a biased presentation of the issue.

Maher Hathout, spokesman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, envisions an interfaith coalition tackling the issue through a fact-finding visit to Sudan, a good-faith pursuit of truth and a "collective condemnation of the perpetrator, no matter what the religion is." But so far, he says, his group's repeated requests for interfaith action have been "blocked by the religious right."

At the same time, however, a fledgling interfaith coalition on Sudan recently formed in Los Angeles has not yet attracted much Muslim support.

Earlier this year, Najee Ali of Project Islamic HOPE was the only Muslim to join denunciations of slavery in Sudan at a news conference with the Rev. Charles Singleton of the Rialto-based Congress on Modern Pan-African Slavery, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Catholic journalist Gabriel Meyer of the Winhoven Forum.

Other prominent Southland religious leaders supporting the anti-slavery coalition include Bishop Charles Blake of West Angeles Church of God in Christ, the Rev. E.V. Hill of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Bishop Kenneth Ulmer of Faithful Central Baptist Church, and the Rev. Cecil Murray of First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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The lack of Muslim support was also raised by Bona Malwal, a former Sudanese minister now at Oxford University, at a forum on Sudan at the Wiesenthal Center in February. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan had publicly denied the existence of slavery in Sudan even though he privately acknowledged its existence in a meeting with him, Malwal said.

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