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Commission’s first hearing focuses on U.S. role in Sudanese conflict

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom received in its first hearing a variety of recommendations on halting the religious persecution and civil war in Sudan, but there seemed to be widespread agreement on one sentiment — the United States can do more.

The Capitol Hill hearing before the congressionally established panel featured the testimony of Sudanese exiles, a Catholic bishop from Sudan, relief workers, human rights specialists and experts on the North African country.

Among the proposals offered to help the victims of the brutal campaign by the militant Islamic regime in Khartoum against Christians and animists in central and southern Sudan were:

— President Clinton should block access to American stock markets by foreign companies investing in a Sudanese oil pipeline.

— A conference should be convened for all parties involved in the conflict in order to agree to the conditions for peace.

— The United States should provide military assistance to the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, a rebel force in the south.

— Self-determination for southern Sudan should be promoted.

— Assistance by the U.S. Agency for International Development to southern Sudan should be strengthened and expanded.

— A transition should be made from emergency assistance to development aid, including the building of roads, in the south.

The commission, which was established by the adoption of the International Religious Freedom Act in late 1998, had already designated China, Russia and Sudan as the three countries it would focus on in its first year. They will be the primary subjects of the panel’s initial report, which is due May 1.

In explaining why the commission chose to hold its inaugural hearing on Sudan, panel chairman David Saperstein explained at the opening of testimony the crisis in that country had “captured the heart of the commission.” He said, “[No] situation in the world has the same sense of urgency.”

One witness, Daniel Eiffe of Norwegian People’s Aid, underscored the commission’s concern by telling it, “Sudan is the hell of the world.” Eiffe, who has worked in Sudan since 1987 after serving as a Catholic priest in South Africa for 10 years, said, “Apartheid is nothing compared to Sudan.”

In the last decade, about 2 million people have died in the civil war between the National Islamic Front in Khartoum and the rebel forces led by the SPLA and as a result of war-related causes. The regime, which is seeking to coerce Sudanese to become Muslims, supports raids by its troops of Christian and animist villages, sometimes even of moderate Muslim areas. The soldiers frequently kill men and kidnap women and children to take them back as slaves to northern Sudan or another country. The troops also burn crops and slaughter livestock. The regime conducts bombing campaigns, with hospitals among the targets. The regime-supported attacks have forced from 4 million to 5 million people to flee their homes.

Caroline Cox, deputy speaker of England’s House of Lords and a frequent visitor to Sudan as president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, told panel members she and others “have witnessed massacres on a huge scale; we have walked for miles amongst human and cattle corpses…. The scale of killing in many areas justifies, we believe, the use of the term ‘genocide.'”

Only a week before the Feb. 15 hearing, military forces aligned with the Khartoum regime bombed a Catholic school in the Nuba Mountains. The Feb. 8 attack killed at least 14 children and a teacher, Reuters news service reported. More than 300 students attend Holy Cross School in Kauda.

Macram Max Gassis, exiled Roman Catholic bishop of the diocese where the bombing occurred and founder of Holy Cross School, told the commission the incident was “another piece of evidence that this war is religious.” The regime’s forces continue to target the most vulnerable, the children, he said. They are the “future of the church” and the “future of our country,” Gassis said.

The bishop called on Christian leaders to “speak out.” He told the panel, “We are not asking you to carry our cross. We are only asking you to help us carry it.”

Commission member Elliott Abrams visited southern Sudan in January. He said at the opening of the hearing, “I believe the United States can act far more effectively” to help the Sudanese victims.

One of the means the commission, as well as American religious leaders such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land, have called for is economic sanctions against Sudan and investors in its new oil pipeline.

The Khartoum regime can realize from $300 million to $400 million in yearly revenues from the oil project, and there is nothing to prevent it from using the money on its military, testified Eric Reeves, an English professor at Smith College who is working on the Sudan issue while on leave from the school.

The United States’ “most effective response lies in our capital markets,” Reeves said. “If you do not participate in American capital markets, you are at an extreme disadvantage.” The president has the authority “to deny the participation of anyone in American capital markets,” he said.

In an October meeting with Clinton, the Commission on International Religious Freedom asked him to apply his 1997 executive order imposing economic sanctions on Sudan to prevent foreign companies from using American capital markets to underwrite the pipeline. The Treasury Department issued a decision saying the executive order does not apply to capital markets. The president has yet to agree with the commission’s request.

The Treasury Department did bend slightly a day after the hearing. It announced the sanctions against Sudan have been applied to Sudapet Ltd., Sudan’s state-owned oil company, and the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co. GNPOC is the oil pipeline project that is a joint venture involving three foreign companies: Government-owned China National Petroleum Corp.; Talisman Energy Corp. of Canada; and Petronas, Malaysia’s state-owned oil company. The sanctions do not apply to the foreign companies.

CNPC owns 40 percent of the oil project, and Talisman has a 25 percent stake in it, according to the commission. CNPC is seeking a listing on the New York Stock Exchange and an initial public offering of stock that could be worth more than $5 billion.

The Feb. 16 action by Treasury is “a step in the right direction,” said Larry Goodrich, a spokesman for the Commission on International Religious Freedom. “It’s not a huge step. It’s a turning of the screw, if you will.”

Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “The good news is that at least Sudan and the terrible plight of Christians who are being martyred for their faith on a daily basis have surfaced on the radar screen of the Clinton administration. However, the bad news is that they still can’t find the moral spine to follow the recommendations of their own commission to put some sanctions with real teeth against this outlaw, war-criminal regime in Khartoum.”

Land and more than 200 others wrote Clinton in December asking him to take the same action the commission had requested. In late January, Land and eight other religious leaders wrote more than 200 mutual funds, pension funds and state treasurers urging them to divest stock in Talisman and to refuse to purchase stock in CNPC if it becomes available.

The campaign with investors is having an impact. In recent months, the state of New Jersey, the Texas Teachers Retirement Fund, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and two investment firms, Manning & Napier and TIAA-CREF, have sold a combined total of more than 2.4 million shares in Talisman, according to reports from The Center for Security Policy and The Washington Post.

A report on Talisman’s involvement in the Sudan pipeline was issued a day before the hearing. The report prepared for Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy said Talisman’s complicity with the Khartoum regime included the use by military helicopter gunships and bombers of a Talisman airstrip.

Talisman is providing the Sudanese government with “moral cover,” Reeves told the panel.

Derek Hammond of the Christian relief agency Faith in Action reported after an early February visit pro-Khartoum forces are using a scorched-earth policy against villages near the oil fields of southern Sudan, according to ReligionToday, an Internet news service. The troops’ intent is to create a buffer zone to protect the pipeline, which is 940 miles long, from rebel attacks, Hammond said.

“Mile after mile, the remains of burned-out and destroyed villages were evident,” Hammond wrote on his website, according to ReligionToday. Most of the men are dead and many women are in hiding, he said.

A few miles from the atrocities, “Chinese, Canadians, Malaysians and Arabs mine oil,” Hammond said.

The commission’s next hearing will be on China. It is scheduled for March 16 in Los Angeles.