UCC’s Prophetic Voice Silent on Sudan

By Dexter Van Zile


One decade after close to a million people were killed in Rwanda as the rest of the world did nothing but watch and offer empty apologies afterwards, another episode of genocide is taking place in nearby Sudan. The whole world knows about the killings, which have been going on for close to two decades, but only now are people starting to consider what will be necessary to put a stop to the massacres, which undermine confidence in the notion that Islam is a religion of peace and that jihad is merely a personal striving for truth as religious progressives in the U.S. are wont to assert.


Up until Colin Powell’s recent visit to Sudan during which he pressured the regime in Khartoum to allow access to relief workers, the issue stayed below the radar screen of the people who would normally condemn the killings because of an inconvenient fact: They are perpetrated by Muslim Arabs, a group liberals religious and non-religious liberals in the U.S. are quick to align themselves with for

Burunga village in the Darfur region

after it was attacked by the Janjaweed militia.

two reasons. Muslim Arabs who are accused of terror-related crimes serve as powerful symbols in the progressives’ putative effort to protect civil liberties. Secondly, in the international arena, Arabs in the Middle East serve as potent symbol in the left’s opposition to alleged American imperialism. There is another inconvenient aspect to the issue for religious progressives in the U.S. Condemning the ethnic cleansing in Sudan could encourage the use of force, which has been anathema to them in recent years. One group which remains notably absent from the fight over Sudan is the United Church of Christ, a denomination which likes to portray itself as part of the moral and ethical bedrock of the U.S.

Fortunately, there is still a role the UCC can play in the efforts to confront violence in Sudan and elsewhere, but it will require asking some serious questions about the nature of Islam and the proper response to the violence some of its adherents have perpetrated. If the UCC and other progressives who follow its lead chose to take up the mantle for the oppressed in Sudan, it would signify an acknowledgment that when confronting religiously motivated terror, pieties are insufficient.

For sure, pieties don’t mean much in Sudan, a country located in Northern Africa, encompassing the equivalent of just over a quarter of the land mass of the United States, making it the largest country on the continent. Sudan’s population is estimated at approximately 40 million with 70 percent Muslim, 25 percent animist and five percent Christian. (The ethnic breakdown is estimated at 40 percent Arab, and 60 percent black African.) Except for the decade beginning in 1972, the country has been at civil war since gaining independence from Great Britain in 1956. According to CIA estimates, war and famine have claimed the lives of two million Sudanese and displaced another four million since the resumption of conflict in 1983.

The current government, which took power in a 1989 coup, is ruled by President Lt. General Omar Hassan Ahmad al Bashir who leads with the support of the military and the National Congress Party (previously known as the National Islamic Front) which uses the spread of Islam as both a tool and justification for Arab expansionism into the south, which has extensive oil reserves.

A report published by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development and presented at the organization’s 2001 conference on racism and public policy describes the conflict as “a situation in which an Arab minority controls state power, dominates the armed forces, the civil bureaucracy, the political elite, commerce, trade, banking and the judiciary, and orders these instrument of state power towards a spoken or unspoken policy of Arabization of the African national majority.”

Prior to a worsening of the conflict in 1980s, the Arabization of black Africans in Sudan was traditionally achieved by the conversion of Islam. By accepting the tenets of Islam, black Africans who previously adhered to Christian or animist beliefs found that they were able to enjoy somewhat improved social status as a result of their conversion, allowing them partial assimilation into the Arab majority. Conditions, however, worsened after a series of coups in the 1980s and when Bashir took power in 1989, the government in Khartoum abandoned the policy of Arabization and embarked on a policy of ethnic cleansing, encouraging militias to kill and enslave black Africans in southern Sudan in an effort to drive them from the country. The reality is undeniable: Sudan, which currently has a seat on the UN Human Rights Commission, is undergoing a process of ethnic cleansing of all non-Arabs, regardless of their religious background.

This is underscored by report issued in May 2004 by the Human Rights Watch detailing and crimes against humanity in Darfur, located on Sudan’s western border with Chad. According to the report, the violence is perpetrated by government sponsored Janjaweed militias supported by government funds and back up by government soldiers. “Government forces oversaw and directly participated in massacres, summary executions of civilians – including woman and children – burnings of towns and villages, and the forcible depopulation of wide swaths of land long inhabited by the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa,” the report states. The fact that these African ethnic groups are themselves Muslim does nothing to prevent the violence perpetrated by their Arab neighbors. “The Janjaweed militias, Muslim like the African groups they attack, have destroyed mosques, killed Muslim religious leaders, and desecrated Qorans belonging to their enemies.”

And it goes beyond the destruction of holy text. When the Janjaweed show up at a village, men, women and children are summarily shot; houses are burnt with elderly residents inside. Girls and women are raped. Survivors are sold into slavery or driven into the bush. All this is done by men on horses and camels under the watchful eye of government soldiers equipped with land rovers and helicopters standing at the perimeter, demonstrating to the victims there is no escape and governmental authority for them to appeal to for help. After the attacks, Sudanese Arabs take possession of the destroyed villages.

While Human Rights Watch emphasized Muslim-on-Muslim violence in its report, violence toward Christians and animists are also a central part of Khartoum’s policy of ethnic cleansing. Dennis Bennett, executive director of the relief group, Servant's Heart, described some of the methods government troops use to terrorize Christians and animists in the Northeast Upper Nile and Southern Blue Nile region of Sudan in a letter sent to more than a dozen members of Congress in March. In the letter, Bennett recounts episodes of militia and government forces asking women if they are Muslim or Christian. “If the woman answers ‘Muslim,’ she is set free,” Bennett writes. “If she answers ‘Christian,’ then GOS [Government of  Sudan] soldiers gang-rape her (10-20 soldiers), then cut off her breasts to ensure that she bleeds to death. Her body is then left as an example to others.”

Bennett also describes government-induced starvation that strips the land of its people. “Their farms, houses and crops are burned by the GOS. All farm tools and seed are also destroyed by the GOS.” Nursing mothers who able to flee the violence have their breast milk dry, amounting “to a death sentence of the nursing baby,” Bennett writes. “There are no mother’s milk substitutes, so nursing babies die first.”

By all accounts, the situation in Sudan has gotten worse in recent months and will only get worse without massive infusions of foreign aid, and possibly the use of force to stop the violence. In addition to ongoing massacres, there is the prospect of famine in the region. UNICEF asserts that half a million children in the region could starve to death in the next few months if food is not brought into the region. USAID pegs the number at 350,000. Even worse, the conflict now risks becoming international with Janjaweed militia crossing the border into Chad to steal cattle and target the refugees they’ve driven from Sudan. With the forays into Chad and dithering by the UN, the conflict is starting to take on a familiar profile – one last seen in Rwanda in 1994, when Hutu militias killed between 500,000 and 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbors. When Hutus fled the conflict into Zaire it ultimately led to the destabilization of that country (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) and a subsequent civil war that cost 3 million lives.

There is however one component to the conflict in Sudan that does not have an analogue in the Rwandan genocide – slavery, which sadly enough is being perpetrated by both sides of the civil war. Slave raids, euphemistically referred to as “abductions” by diplomats have been prevalent in the country since the early 1980s.  In its most recent annual report on human trafficking, the U.S. State Department reports that “Government-sponsored militias and rebel groups have abducted thousands of Sudanese and Ugandan men, women and children for use as sex slaves, domestic workers, agricultural workers and child soldiers.” The State Department also reports that slaves originating from Sudan have been found throughout the Middle East, in countries such as Libya, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Sadly enough, the putatively civilized world has done nothing to convince Khartoum the killing must stop. Nearby African nations recently insisted that Sudan be given a seat on the UN’s Human Rights Commission, over protests from the U.S., itself a member of the Security Council, which has done nothing except talk about the ongoing crisis in Sudan – despite reports from UN staffers documenting the process of ethnic cleansing. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the man held largely responsible for the lack of response to the genocide in Rwanda, says don’t blame him, it’s the member states’ fault. If Annan acknowledged publicly that genocide is taking place in Sudan, the UN’s member states would be legally obligated to act. It’s a vain hope, however, because Annan politely refrained from uttering the g-word in public during the killings in Rwanda, giving world leaders all the cover they needed to do nothing.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s recent trip to Sudan, during which he accused the Khartoum regime of willful denial, is evidence that it will no longer be possible for the civilized nations of the world to ignore the situation in Darfur. One group which should be at the forefront in the efforts to condemn Khartoum but has remained silent, is the United Church of Christ.  It’s out of character for a denomination that (with some justification), likes to portray itself as sort of an early warning system for the nation's conscience. To be sure, there are other churches and institutions in the U.S. that can make similar claims, but few of them can lay claim to the history embodied by the UCC. Many of UCC member churches were founded in colonial New England when towns could not incorporate until after their inhabitants had built a church. Consequently, many UCC churches are located on town commons where they continue to play a central role in the public life.

The denomination, founded in 1957 with the merger of Congregational churches predominantly in New England and congregations from the Evangelical and Reformed Church located primarily in the Midwest, lays claim to a robust history of promoting the separation of church and state and expressing concern for the oppressed and marginalized in both the U.S. and overseas. According to the denomination’s 2003 annual report, the UCC’s theological predecessors were the first mainline church to call for an end to slavery in 1700. Congregationalists were the “first predominantly Euro-American church to ordain an African American as a minister – Lemuel Hayes in 1785.” Furthermore the Congregationalists, whose role in the Abolitionist movement has long been touted by UCC leaders, were the primary force behind the successful defense of the slaves who overwhelmed their masters on board the Amistad and landed on Long Island in 1839. Additionally, UCC clergy and members were visible participants in the fight for civil rights in the 1960s. And although not mentioned in the annual report, the UCC’s forbears expressed concern over the rights of Japanese Americans during World War II. More recently, the UCC has been supportive of gay rights, ordaining the first openly gay minister in 1972. All of these facts, taken together, demonstrate the progressive nature of the UCC, which its leaders recount with pride.

“We have often been referred to as the  ‘early’ church,” the denomination’s annual report for 2003 states, “because we’ve been early in addressing the important issues facing our society and taking uncomfortable positions that go against cultural acceptability. Why? Because we love Jesus more than the lure of respectability.”

Statements by prominent members of the denomination’s clergy bear this out, even if the UCC has said next to nothing about the situation in Sudan.  For example, in June, 2003, Rev. Nancy Taylor, president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, the largest protestant denomination in Massachusetts, sent a letter to six Muslim leaders in and around Boston, offering them and their followers emotional support in the wake of a suspicious fire, which caused $10,000 worth of damage at the Islamic Center of New England in Quincy, Mass. The letter, sent soon after the fire, was a legitimate expression of support to a beleaguered religious community in a time of need. Given the ongoing fear of terrorism that has gripped the country since Sept. 11, 2001 and the passions inflamed by war in Iraq, it's hard not to think that the fire in Quincy was set by someone motivated by hostility toward Muslims. Taylor’s expression of support was entirely justified, especially since leaders of the Islamic Center of New England roundly condemned the Sept. 11 Attack.

"We extend to you the shelter of our caring,” Taylor wrote. “I can only imagine how vulnerable and uneasy you are feeling in these days following September 11, 2001. Please know that you are not alone in feeling outrage at the crimes against Muslims and Arab-Americans. With many other good people, I shudder at the stereotypes, the hostility, and the injustice that you and others are experiencing due to ignorance and fear. I grieve that you and your children do not always feel safe in your own home and country.”

Taylor’s letter to Mosques in and around Boston is only one of many demonstrations of support offered by the UCC to Muslims in the U.S. In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attack, UCC leaders took to their pulpits to defend civil liberties in the U.S., taking special care to remind their parishioners not to act out of vengeance toward Muslims or Arabs living in the U.S. For example, an article prepared by the Common Global Ministries and posted on the UCC’s website tells us jihad is not the violent project of subjugation the religion’s critics and fanatics say it is, but is merely “a striving of Islamic faith toward truth and right.”

In May 2003, the First Congregational UCC in Hillsboro, Oregon condemned the federal government for holding Maher “Mike” Hawash under the Patriot Act, asserting that confining him as a material witness without charges violated Hawash’s constitutional rights. The church wrote letters to their federal lawmakers and worked to publicize Hawash’s detention in the press and this work was featured prominently in the denomination’s newsletter, UCC News. Even after Hawash, an immigrant from the Palestinian territory who subsequently became a U.S. citizen in the 1980s, pleaded guilty to conspiring to join the Taliban and Al Qaeda and take up arms against the U.S., Rev. Diane Dulin, the church’s pastor said she had “no regrets for having stood up for civil liberties.”

More recently, clergy from the UCC expressed support for Fawaz Damra, a Muslim cleric in Cleveland, Ohio who was convicted in June 2004 of lying on his application for U.S. citizenship, concealing his previous affiliation with terrorist organizations, which included fundraising efforts on behalf of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group responsible for terror bombings in Israel and designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization in 1989. Despite videotapes of his speeches on behalf of PIJ, which showed Damra referring to Jews as “monkeys and pigs” in the early 1990s, Rev. Steven Coates from the Brunswick UCC in Ohio told the press prior to Damra’s conviction: "We love the imam. We know he's innocent.”

To be fair, Damra, who emigrated to the U.S. from Nabulus in 1984 and applied for citizenship in 1993, had since renounced violence and became a promoter of interfaith dialogue, a process apparently fueled by his attendance at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, where he earned his master’s degree in 1998. In Dec. 2001, he told a UCC audience “There are things that I have said in the past of which I am ashamed and for which I have apologized many times. I was living in ignorance and I did not know any better.”

In any event one question needs to be posed to the UCC clergy: Why all the concern about the rights of Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. and little if any expressions of support for the victims of ethnic cleansing in Sudan, or for that matter the victims of Muslim violence and repression throughout the rest of the world? To be sure, the UCC clergy does acknowledge these problems, but only in passing, typically while on the way to condemn the behavior of the U.S. military or Bush Administration. One example: When arguing against the invasion of Iraq, Bernice Powell Jackson, executive director of the UCC’s Justice and Witness program (who was recently elected North American President for the World Council of Churches) warned that anti-Western sentiment provoked by an invasion could put remnant Christian communities in the Middle East at risk. The fact is Christians have been persecuted (if not extirpated) in the Middle East for decades – if not centuries – by Islamic governments that imprison people found in possession of Christian Bibles. In its defense the UCC can and probably will assert that its condemnation over the problems in Sudan were funneled through the National Council of Churches, a group of 36 Christian denominations, but it too has largely focused on promoting interfaith discussions without confronting the problem of militant Islam.

At issue is the response of progressive Christians to Islam, which is currently motivated by the idea that the violence which manifested itself on Sept. 11 is an aberration, an idea that is becoming increasingly untenable. To be sure, there are other more tolerant, hopeful and peaceful interpretations of Islam that contradict the totalitarian creed embodied by sharia and jihad, but for Westerners to assert that the peaceful interpretations are the authentic form of the religion should be regarded misses the point. A religion's beliefs can be discerned from how its adherents behave. If it’s true the vast majority Muslims are law abiding, peace loving people who, even if they have problems with the West, don't support its destruction, there are still enough Muslims who do seek its destruction (and the destruction of other Muslims who don’t share this goal) to be cause for concern. Given the current spate of beheadings and massacres and bombings, it’s hard to deny that moderates do not yet dominate the discourse in the Muslim world and it is entirely open to question whether they will win the debate with extremists.

Islam, like other religions, is a living system that can manifest itself in innumerable ways. The issue now is what face the Muslim religion will present to the rest of the world, especially to non-believers – the visage of jihad or the countenance of peace emphasized by Islam’s defenders. It’s an issue of huge consequence for the entire world, especially for Africa. Should the project of jihad extend beyond Sudan’s borders and sharia is imposed in neighboring countries, the status of women, an issue near and dear to UCC clergy, will diminish. To make matters worse, if jihad extends further into Africa, Christians will likely militarize, raising the prospect of a wide ranging religious war on the continent. The militarization of Christian theology and all it entails, is a likely response to the threat of militant Islam unless the moderates and liberals embodied by the UCC can come up with a response to Muslim violence that takes into account a crucial reality that religious and non-religious liberals in the west have denied: Whether or not Islam is a religion of peace is a question that has not yet been settled by its adherents.

What can the UCC do? Capitalize on its ecumenical outreach to the Muslim community in the U.S. Given the UCC’s historical role in fighting oppression and its recent efforts to connect with Muslims and Arabs, the denomination surely has a role to play in drawing attention to the violence in Sudan. While arguments can be made about the wisdom of UCC clergy standing shoulder to shoulder with people like Hawash and Damra, their efforts should have built up some credibility with Muslim leaders in the U.S. It's time UCC clergy use that credibility by asking the Muslims in the U.S. to call for the end of violence in Sudan. It’s perfectly legitimate that Muslims in the U.S. be part of the call to protect the rights of black Africans Southern Sudan who are being murdered and sold into slavery by people who call themselves Muslims. Inviting the adherents of Islam in the U.S. to join the abolitionist movement will provide Muslims of good faith the opportunity to demonstrate that indeed, they follow a religion of peace, as their defenders tell us.

There is more however, the UCC can and must do. It needs to get honest about the people who currently dominate the discourse in Islam and challenge the moderates to condemn – unequivocally, loudly, forcefully, repeatedly and consistently – the beheadings, massacres and bombings that have been perpetrated by their putative co-religionists in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Additionally, the UCC needs to promote the ability of secular, pluralist societies to defend themselves from militant Islam. On this score, UCC clergy need to consider the role they have played in promoting a theology of militant pacifism in its efforts to stop the war in Iraq. While some will argue that the war in Iraq was a mistake (this writer does not) there can be no doubt that an unalterably pacifistic stance in the face of militant Islam is untenable. The only real debate is what principles will be used to govern the defense against militant Islam: religious or secular?

There are times when the town common and all it stands for needs to be protected by force. In these instances, it’s crucial that progressive Christians have a say in deciding why and how the force is used. People need spiritual and intellectual support in the face of threats like those posed by militant Islam. If this support comes at the cost of the right to defend oneself, people will go elsewhere for spiritual leadership and succor in times of crisis when our values are most tested. If the UCC and other mainline protestant denominations like it do not come up with a more honest, believable response to Muslim violence other than reminding us Islam means peace, there are other Christian communities who will come up with their own response, and these communities won’t have nearly the same commitment to pluralism, religious tolerance and secular governance that the UCC embraces. The result will be the increased prospect of the U.S. becoming the mirror image of militant Islam that progressives, religious and non-religious, abhor.

If the UCC clergy want to be taken seriously when they speak with a prophetic voice about the current state of the world, they will have to acknowledge an unpleasant truth: The assertion that Islam is a religion of peace is not an opinion shared by many of its adherents.

If you need proof, go to Dafur.

Dexter Van Zile is a writer from Boston, Mass., and former chair of the Board of Deacons at Allin Congregational Church in Dedham, Mass. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaire in the late 1980s, working as a public health agent. He can reached at dextervanzile@yahoo.com.


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