Kathryn Lopez

American politicians give quite a few speeches on the importance of "dialogue" with Islam. In the Nuba mountains of Sudan, Macram Gassis actually carries it out.

Gassis is the Catholic bishop of El Obeid, which includes Darfur, and is less than 2 percent Catholic. "The conscience of the South," is how Steve Wagner describes him. Wagner serves on the board of the Bishop Gassis Sudan Relief Fund and spent this past Christmas in the diocese there with the 72-year-old bishop.

Southern Sudan faces a referendum this January on succession from the North, after a long and brutal conflict. As the West steps up its attention again on Sudan, Vice President Joe Biden recently announced: "We're doing everything in our power to make sure this election on the referendum is viewed by the world as legitimate and fair." His remarks were unclear and inadequate in a land teetering on the constant threat of more brutality. The success of southern independence holds the promise of not only saving countless human lives, but the gain of a "pro-American, democratic partner" in East Africa, as Charlie Szrom of the American Enterprise Institute emphasizes.

Gassis knows well the need of Western support for a viable, independent state in the hotbed of radical Islam that is Sudan. But like any good father, he tells his people to not expect or get too comfortable with "handouts." He wants to see the Sudanese truly take responsibility for a new country. Knowing human nature, he considers it the only way, ultimately, to change the face of Sudan. And it follows in the tradition of what he's been doing there for more than two decades: fighting for the dignity and identity of every human life in a land that has seen man at his worst. He offers nothing less than truth about authentic liberation.

Because of security and stability concerns, Gassis has had to base many of his operations out of Nairobi, in neighboring Kenya. But his service is to the Sudanese people, whoever they are, however they pray. "Water," he tells me, is "not Catholic. It's not Muslim. It's water. People need it." And so he oversees the digging of wells. He calls that his version of the "dialogue" that we're frequently talking about in the West.

Kathryn Lopez

Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, writes a weekly column of conservative political and social commentary for Newspaper Enterprise Association.