Geoff Tunnicliffe, general secretary of the World Evangelical Alliance – an umbrella group for 128 national evangelical alliances located in 7 regions of the world and for 104 associate member organizations – spoke to The Christian Post last week while visiting Washington, D.C. Tunnicliffe shared about the group’s perspective on the situation in Sudan, Egypt, and Pakistan as well as the group’s work with the U.S. Department of State.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
CP: What did you discuss in your meeting with the State Department this week?
Tunnicliffe: We had conversations with several people in the State Department in the area of international religious freedom groups. Our discussions were more around Sudan and Pakistan and China.
CP: What did you discuss about Sudan?
Tunnicliffe: Well, we've been involved in the referendum and we're just basically giving our perspective on the situation in Sudan, what our ongoing concerns are regarding post referendum. There's been a strong support for the referendum, 99.5 percent voted in favor of secession. [So we are concerned for]the on-going negotiations of what the separation will look like, the impact on the south, making sure that there's follow through and the development of the south.
But also, [we have concerns for] the protection of Christians in the north where there's been growing Sharia [law] and making sure that they have religious liberties over their expressions.
CP: Do you believe the reports that once this secession is finalized, the north is going to be Sharia law-based?
Tunnicliffe: No, not necessarily. There are indications from government. Some of the government ministers have made statements around that. We never know until it happens. But we're going to try to influence and to promote religious liberty and protection of freedom of faith. So I think that part of our advocacy work will be with the government of Khartoum.
CP: What about south Sudan now? Following what's in the news, everyone is so happy and they've come up with a new song for the country. Are they getting too excited about the little things and forgetting about the bigger things that need to be done?
Tunnicliffe: We have to look at everything in perspective. After 40 years of conflict and civil war, the fact the referendum actually took place – and there was very little violence, and there was totally clarity of vote – [it is worthy of celebration]. Certainly from our observers who were there, (we had monitors there for the referendum) it was executed well. I think it's okay to have a moment of celebration. I think that's a good thing.
CP: How long should the moment be?
Tunnicliffe: As they move into the future, the next several months, next mile stones, I think there's going to be even bigger celebrations when there's actually a formation of the country.
But there's still a lot of hard work to be done around so many things: the border states, some of the ports, the issues around the oil and revenues, the flow of oil. So there are lots of things to be negotiated. They're nowhere near out of the woods yet when it comes to the future.
But I think a big first step has been taken. If you asked even six months ago if it would have gone off as smoothly as it did, some of those of us are very pleasantly surprised and encouraged by the fact that it happened.
CP: What do you think are some essential first steps for the country?
Tunnicliffe: In some ways you’re building a nation from almost ground up. The delivery of basic services to people, for their health, for their economic wellbeing, [is a first step]. Whether it's health care delivery, educational structures, job creation, the basic structures of society have to be developed. They almost have to happen simultaneously.
Securing the boarders [is another step] because you're dealing with tribal conflict, you're dealing with incursions of the Lord's Resistance Army.
So I think making sure that the boarders are secure and developing the civil society and structures around that is a lot to take on. And that's why I believe that the international community has to rally support for southern Sudan and help in nation building and building the social services the country needs.
CP: What do you think about the President of South Sudan? I understand you met him last year. Do you think he's up for the challenge?
Tunnicliffe: My experience with him [is that] he seems like a person of certainly deep passion for his country and he wants to do the right thing. He seems to have done a good job of building a team of people around him.
But it is a very significant challenge that he faces. He certainly has strong leadership skills. How he applies those skills is going to be critical. I want to be hopeful so we're going to be praying for him.
CP: What about the faith community in Sudan? How is the faith of the people in southern Sudan?
Tunnicliffe: I think there's great resilience within the Sudanese church. They've gone through a lot. They've gone through the fire and that hsd refined them. What encourages me is there is great cooperation between the churches. I sense significant unity and a desire by the churches to really contribute not only to the spiritual welfare but the overall welfare of the nation. So I'm very thankful for what I've seen in the churches in Sudan.
CP: Moving to another country on the African continent, what is really going on in Egypt? Is America really approaching [the conflict] in a way that is sensitive to all the nuances of the people?
Tunnicliffe: Putting it in perspective, the rapidity of what's happening in Egypt is very significant. So I don't think any administration could be fully prepared for the rapidity of what's happening. I think the U.S. faces a very significant challenge in having a nuanced response to the situation.
CP: Is it wise for the U.S. to call for the ousting of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak? There seems to be conflicting signs of whether Mubarak is trying to stabilize the country to keep the country from becoming a radical Islamic state or trying to control the country for control's sake.
Tunnicliffe: Well, that's the million-dollar question. My sense is that the quiet diplomacy, which I think the Obama administration has been using, overall has been helpful. I think no matter what position the U.S. comes down on, it's [going to be] a challenge and groups are going to want to spin it in their own direction. I think it's really important for the people of Egypt to determine their own future.
I think also [it's important] to recognize that there are Christians that are involved actively in the civil disobedience or the civil demonstrations.
CP: What are Christians in Egypt doing?
Tunnicliffe: They've been in the demonstrations. While Christians are a minority in the country, they do make up about 7 percent of the population. Our sense is that Christians in Egypt want to make a positive contribution to the future of the nation and they’re trying to find ways to do that. They've called on a huge network that they've put together for prayer. So there's a lot of prayer.
So for us, I think we would say we want to remind the world that in some ways the church is making a contribution. And no matter what the outcome of this process is, there will be greater religious liberty in Egypt. We've had a growing concern about some of the religious liberty [issues] and the attacks on Christians. Think about the attack on Christians over Christmas. So we pray with them and stand with them and support them any way that we can for that outcome.
CP: I saw on the WEA website that the Alliance called for prayers so that Egyptian Christians would not run away and their numbers would not diminish. What is causing Egyptian Christians to possibly leave their homeland?
Tunnicliffe: I think it is the patterns we've seen in other parts of the Middle East, for instance, in Iraq or the West Bank. It has been because of all of the pressure that's been put upon them – including economic pressures as Christians and even discrimination – many have had to leave or flee the country. So, we have seen a diminishing number of Christians in some of these other countries.
Our concern, again, would be if there would be greater pressure placed upon the Christians in Egypt that people would leave.
CP: On to Pakistan, is there anything new in the Asia Bibi case?
Tunnicliffe: With Pakistan, we have growing concerns. The geopolitical realities within Pakistan are probably [what makes it] one of the most critical if not the most critical place on the planet in terms of potential impact. The fact that it is home to many of the terrorist groups, that there's a radicalization of the youth [makes it a very critical place]. We are very concerned for Federal Minister [for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz] Bhatti.
We've committed to rally our community in support for him. He's in a vital place. For us, it's not just about religious liberty. It's a broader issue than that. He's under great threat. So, we'll be putting public and private pressure on the government for his protection. So we hope to take a delegation there to Pakistan. We'll be calling on all our evangelical alliances around the world to write letters of support on his behalf. We feel that this is an important juncture to rally our support behind him and [not only] gain prayer support but also gain support for him in his role. He's in a tenuous position. We know there have been several threats on his life. So, he's very courageous.
CP: It seems that Bhatti is the only one that's speaking up [for Asia Bibi] right now?
Tunnicliffe: The president [of Pakistan] asked him to look into it, but he does need support. And I would say this to the Pakistani government: we believe that there is great support for political leaders who would stand up against the blasphemy law.
CP: What are some of the future plans for the WEA?
Tunnicliffe: We serve a community of 600 million people. A lot of our work is what I call track two work, quiet diplomacy [which consists of] seeking to build relationships, speaking quietly behind the scenes and seeking to bring influence that way. As we look across the world and we seek troubled situations, we're probably involved in some way in those issues. People may not be aware about it, we may not publicize it, but we would certainly ask for the Christian community to pray for us. We seek to be a Christian witness, but also peace makers, reconcilers and mediators in many different contexts. It seems to be a very troubled planet, and we think that is the calling of Christians: that we get on the frontline.
I often tell my staff that all the easy jobs have been done and now it's just the tough ones. So we realize that we have to engage in the tough ones. We realize that we're in a spiritual battle and we need to move ahead with faith and trust and not put our political trust in powers. Political powers do have an impact, but that's not where our trust is.