Was it really an April Fools trick or did the World Council of Churches (WCC) actually admit that Christians in Islamist Sudan endure some unpleasantness?
According to an April 1 report from the WCC news service, a WCC delegation recently visited Khartoum and was "shocked" to learn that a Christian cemetery in the nation's capital is also being used as a used car lot.
Once the visiting ecumenists recover from their shock, maybe they'll get around to realizing that Sudan is governed by theocratic Islamists who killed 2 million southern, mostly Christian Sudanese during the war that concluded in 2005.
The Religious Left has adopted the suffering in Darfur, a Sudanese province, as one of its pet issues. Their concern for Darfur is admirable. Hundreds of thousands of African Muslims have perished there, usually at the hands of Arab militias backed by the Islamist regime in Khartoum. Since Darfur is about Muslims killing other Muslims, it evidently is permissible for the Religious Left to take an active interest in it.
But the even more horrible and genocidal sufferings of the southern Sudan rarely provoked a peep from the Religious Left in the United States or elsewhere in the West, including the Geneva-based WCC. The war in southern Sudan was negotiated to a tenuous peace in 2005 with help from the Bush Administration, urged on by a coalition in the U.S. of evangelicals, Jews, black church leaders and other human rights activists who began organizing in the 1990's. The world's worst case of Islamist terror somehow never aroused enormous interest from the WCC, the National Council of Churches in the U.S. or other Religious Left groups supposedly so concerned about global justice.
But miracles do occur, and the WCC finally found its way to Khartoum, evidently having heard rumors of difficulties for Christians there. The WCC official report sagely observes: "It is hard for Christians to have their own place - even after they have died. The city's Christian cemetery, which has been turned into a sales park for second hand cars, illustrates well the challenges faced by the minority Christian community in the northern, predominantly Muslim part of the country."
The only official cemetery for Christians in the city of 8 million is a 4 acre plot land given to Khartoum's churches in 1975. But in 2007 a livestock market was set up on half of the acreage. "Can you imagine?" the Sudan Council of Churches chief Peter Tibi is quoted asking in the WCC report. "Animals were being sold at a venue which by nature is a holy ground."
After complaints from church leaders, the livestock were eventually cleared away, only to be replaced by exhibitions and testing of used cars. Thoughtfully, the visiting WCC delegation, led by outgoing WCC chief Samuel Kobia, raised the cemetery issue with Sudan's M inister of Guidance and Endowment Hassan El Tighani. "I was shocked when I learnt that a livestock market was profaning a place that should be sacred", Kobia is quoted as telling the Sudanese official. Tighani assured the visiting prelates that he shared their pain and would appeal for a solution from the Islamist regime's council of national ministers. A solution is on its way, no doubt.
The WCC news release briefly noted that the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement had concluded a "devastating 21-year civil war between north and south that left 2 million dead and 4 million displaced persons." Despite its own ostensibly Christian affiliation, the WCC report declined to elaborate that the "civil war" was really about the Islamist Khartoum regime attempting to kill and suppress non-Muslims who did not care to live under Sharia. The WCC report did acknowledge that Sudan's churches face "tremendous tasks and challenges"
Helpfully, the WCC report mentioned that 90 percent of Sudan's Christians live in the south, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, Pentecostals, and Evangelicals. Since the peace agreement, the southern Sudanese now have some autonomy, however precariously. But Christians in the north still must live directly under Khartoum's Islamist rule. As the WCC noted, as "part of their condition of religious minority, Sudanese churches face sometimes insurmountable difficulties to obtain a piece of terrain in which to build facilities." Sometimes the regime has seized their worship places, the WCC reported.
The kindly minister of the Islamist regime who met with the WCC delegation assured them that Christians were not singled out for problems. Indeed, it had taken even the minister about 10 years to get his own personal plot of land, he claimed, which is "just normal when it comes to land property in Sudan." He even told the WCC that some mosques had been, in the words of the WCC report, "equally expropriated" by the government. But the minister is working vigorously to overcome these "cumbersome procedures."
Sudan's " Special Commission for the Rights of Non-Muslims in the National Capital" also courteously met with the WCC delegation. As the WCC report sagely noted, "non-Muslims" is a "euphemism" for Christians. The commission is half staffed by Christians and half by Muslims; dealing with the "issues derived of the implementation of the Sharia, the Islamic religious law, in regard to Christians," as the WCC described it. The commission's Islamic head admitted that the livestock sales in the Christian cemetery were "very insulting." And the commission's Christian president assured the WCC that Muslims had "seriously protested" with the Christians. But why the used car lot still remains in the cemetery is still a "mystery," the Christian president admitted.
Despite the WCC's "shock," will anyone else be surprised if the Christians of Khartoum just have to get used to the used car sales in their only cemetery? The WCC describes its delegation to Sudan as an "opportunity for the international ecumenical representatives to express solidarity with the Sudanese people and listen to the churches in the country." The WCC team will "will learn about their concerns, hopes and needs." Good for the WCC for finally getting around to Sudan, about 25 years too late, and 2 million dead later. Maybe the WCC team can inform the rest of the Religious Left that Khartoum's theocratic savagery did not begin in Darfur but in southern Sudan, against primarily Christians, more than a quarter century ago.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.