Kathryn Lopez

Under hellish conditions, Gassis has "brought the Gospel and the sacraments, dug hundreds of wells, erected two modern hospitals -- one of which is now the best in all Sudan -- many schools and training centers," Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, observes. Gassis has been a peacemaker, having negotiated security arrangements and land grants on behalf of the southern rebels. He "has aggressively recruited priests, nuns, doctors, and nurses to come to the area to serve these tribal peoples," Shea continues. And he has taken his experiences on the road, "ceaselessly witnessing to the West, before Congress, the U.N., the EU and other fora about the jihad taking place against his people." He's done this despite the dangers he's faced -- including a fatwa on his life.

Get Gassis talking about his experiences in a casual Western setting, as I recently did, though, and you may have to remind yourself that he's talking about a diocese that has suffered two genocides during his episcopacy there. Gassis talks about water and education and other basics of infrastructure, matter-of-factly -- with less sense of drama and victimhood than your local bureaucratic building commission.

But a civilization-wide fight does rage around him, and he's not removed from any of it. And Gassis' tough love for the rebels who would form the independent government in the South does not obscure geopolitical realities. Born in Khartoum, Gassis knows intimately the terror of the regime in the North. And, as the Sudan Relief Fund's Wagner points out, "If the people of the South give the government of southern Sudan greater responsibility, Bishop Gassis will be the outspoken advocate" for them, continuing the tremendous progress he's overseen in his tenure as bishop.

As the Hudson Institute's Shea tells it, "The South has turned its face to the West; it has abolished Arabic as the main language of education and replaced it with English. It is pro-American and not a terrorist stronghold." The North, on the other hand, "still hosts and is a supply route for a myriad of Islamist terror groups."

The South "is rich in oil and, for all our sakes, these fields should not be handed over to the genocidal and fanatical (President Omar Hassan al-Bashir)," Shea contends. The International Criminal Court recently issued an arrest warrant for Bashir for crimes against humanity and genocide.

Gassis' courage is underscored by the fact that much of his diocese will remain under the authority of Khartoum's terrorist Islamic government, even if the South secedes. But Gassis doesn't keep his head down. And he worries not only about the religious freedom -- and lives -- of Sudanese Christians, but also about Muslims who have been treated as second-class citizens because of some of their traditions.

Gassis has done monumental things in the midst of war-torn desolation, and this resilient man (he's a cancer-survivor) now has reinforcements. As southern Sudan stands at a precipice, he'll continue digging and shepherding this budding civilization for as long as he can, under the most impossible of circumstances, reminding humanity what we're capable of.

Kathryn Lopez

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