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Sudanese persecution a ‘litmus test,’ panel chairman says at conference


WASHINGTON (BP)–The persecution of Christians and others in Sudan is a “litmus test for us to speak out,” the chairman of a United States commission on religious freedom overseas said at a recent Capitol Hill conference on the East African country.
About 200 people gathered in a Senate office building for a summit on a country that has been rated one of the world’s worst examples of religious persecution in recent years. The meeting came as part of a growing effort to bring pressure by the United States and the international community on the Sudanese government at a critical time.
Two million people have died during the last decade in the civil war between the militant Islamic regime in Khartoum and the rebel forces of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army and as a result of war-related causes. The regime supports raids by its troops of Christian and animist villages in the southern part of the country, but sometimes even of moderate Muslim areas.
The soldiers frequently kill men and kidnap women and children to take them back as slaves to the northern part of Sudan or another country. The troops also burn crops and slaughter livestock. The regime conducts bombing campaigns, with hospitals among the targets.
At least 100,000 Sudanese died of starvation last year as a result of the regime’s intentional withholding of food aid to its people. From 4 to 5 million have had to flee their homes.
David Saperstein, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, reminded the attendees the number of people killed in Rwanda, the Congo, Kosovo, Bosnia and East Timor is “almost dwarfed by” the 2 million killed in Sudan.
The United States “is beginning to stir, but we are compelled to act far more forcefully than we have done,” said Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
“In World War II, so many people in Germany, even in the Allied countries, were able to say, ‘We didn’t know [about the Holocaust]. We didn’t know.’
“We know what is happening in Sudan. The world knows. There is no justification for the silence that has too long afflicted Sudan, and religious persecution is a major piece of it,” Saperstein said.
The commission, which was established by last year’s International Religious Freedom Act, has chosen Sudan as one of three countries it will focus on in its first year of work.
A critical way of influencing the situation in Sudan involves China, one of the other countries targeted by the commission, attendees at the Nov. 9 meeting were told. The only “significant oil field” China has found is in the Sudan, and the communist giant is “not going to let it go,” said Dennis Bennett, founder of ViTrade.com and an expert on Sudan’s economy.
The China National Petroleum Corp., China’s state-owned oil company, is a heavy investor in an oil pipeline in Sudan completed in August. The pipeline will enable the previously debt-stricken Khartoum regime to finance its war against the people of Sudan, speakers said.
Talisman Energy, a Canadian oil company with many American investors, has provided funding, technology and personnel for the pipeline, Bennett said in material distributed at the conference.
Speakers called for a campaign seeking divestment from Talisman similar to the successful effort against companies in South Africa that helped bring an end to apartheid. Alan Hevesi, comptroller of New York City, said he manages $92 billion in pension funds. “We want you to know we will be in this fight with you,” he said. The states of California, New Jersey, New York and Wisconsin are shareholders in Talisman.
An effort also is under way to prevent the China National Petroleum Corp. from being listed on the New York Stock Exchange and from an initial public offering of stock. The International Religious Freedom Commission has urged President Clinton to prohibit CNPC and its affiliates from U.S. stock exchanges. The administration is studying the president’s 1997 executive order imposing economic sanctions against Sudan to see if it can be used to block the Chinese oil company from stock exchanges.
In a message read at the conference, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said she met last month in Kenya with opposition leaders and others from Sudan and returned to this country “more determined than ever that the United States will do all we can to achieve a just, lasting resolution.”
Shannon Royce, legislative counsel for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the conference was a step in an effort “to try to make Americans, and particularly American Christians, aware that there truly is a crisis in Sudan. The first step of any legislative effort is to demonstrate a need. So we are raising awareness of a vital need.”
Don Kammerdiener, executive vice president of the International Mission Board, and Royce attended the meeting.
Legislation has been introduced that would condemn the human rights violations in Sudan, increase pressure for the United Nations to act and reform relief efforts so assistance would reach the victims of the National Islamic Front. The Sudan Peace Act is S. 1453 in the Senate and H.R. 2906 in the House of Representatives.
Sen. Bill Frist, R.-Tenn., the chief Senate sponsor of the bill, received an award at the conference for his leadership on Sudan. Others receiving awards were Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan.; Rep. Donald Payne, D.-N.J., and Sudanese Bishop Macram Max Gassis.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., told attendees in “many respects this is one of the major moral issues where people on the right and the left and the middle can come together and work together … and make a tremendous difference.”
Christian recording artist Michael Card sang at both the start and close of the conference.