A Christian Father in the Sudanese Trenches

Kathryn Lopez

7/23/2010 1:43:57 PM - 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.

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.