Working to rebuild 'a broken humanity'

CHARLES LEWIS

Catholic Bishop Macram Gassis faces the challenge of a return to Sudan.

Bishop Macram Gassis is returning to his
diocese in Central Sudan after a 17 year exile.

Roman Catholic Bishop Macram Gassis needs a bit of assistance rising from his chair. He explains that when he was in his Diocese of El Obeid last year, the first time overtly since he went into self-imposed exile from Sudan 17 years ago, he had the misfortune to fall off a donkey.

The injury would seem almost comical if the incident did not occur in a place almost completely overwhelmed with misery. And odd, too, that during his numerous covert trips to his diocese, in the Nuba Mountain region in central Sudan, in the midst of a genocidal war he survived three aerial bombardments unscathed.

Now, a few months shy of 70, he is preparing to reclaim his diocese. A peace treaty three years ago between the mainly Islamic and Arabic north of the country and the Christian and animist south and central regions, means going back for good is finally possible.

But what he is going back to weighs heavily.

"My concern now is how can we rebuild a broken humanity," he said during an interview at St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto. "And this is the challenge for us bishops who live in the war areas. There are many people who are traumatized. Youth who are accustomed to go by the gun. Many people were enslaved and women were raped and had children.

"Here in Canada when a woman is raped, you can imagine all the attention that is given to her. What about ours? Who is going to do that? How can we take away the hatred that has accumulated for so many years in the hearts of our people? It must be terrible for a man to see that his wife was raped or killed or his daughters taken as slaves."

The facts about Sudan are so numbing that the only proper reaction is shame. In the southern and central regions of the country, more than two million people died and four million were displaced during the decade-long war. Arab raiders, to terrorize the black population, also used mass rape as a weapon. Thousands were forced into slavery.


"...How can we take away the hatred that has accumulated for so many years in the hearts of our people? It must be terrible for a man to see that his wife was raped or killed or his daughters taken as slaves."


Meantime, the National Islamic Front in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, has turned its attention to Darfur, a mostly Sufiregion in the western part of the country, where an estimated 400,000 people have been killed and two million displaced to date.

In the late 1980s, Bishop Gassis testified in front of the U. S. Congress about what the Arab leaders in the north were doing.

"I said there was slavery in Sudan. I said there was persecution of Christians in Sudan. I said food was used to Arabize and Islamize the non-Arabs and non-Muslims.

"I had to say [what I said] because if as a shepherd I kept quiet before certain atrocities and the trampling of the human dignity then there is no reason for me to be a shepherd."

In 1990 he went to a Jesuit hospital in Washington to have his cancer treated but once there he was warned by a friend it would be dangerous to return home.

During the 17 years he was in exile in Kenya he toured the world trying to bring attention to the disaster that had befallen his country. In the United States, his message helped coalesce evangelicals and Catholics to lobby Washington, which in turn helped bring warring factions to the table. A peace treaty was worked out in 2005, but did not include Darfur.

Now he has a two pronged mission: to help settle the fighting in Darfur and bring help to those areas that were ravaged by years of war.

He shows photographs of his diocese from his trip last year. There is a new hospital that was just built with $1-million in private donations.

But he also shows people getting their drinking water out of mud holes, roads that are unusable and schools so open to the elements that animals roam inside.

"Peace is a process. It's not a point of arrival," said Bishop Gassis, who was born and raised in Khartoum. "If we don't carry on with the peace process it will fall back. When I see hundreds of thousands of refugees coming back to their father's land they are dumped under trees. Where will these people stay? What will they eat?"

Here in Canada, he is speaking mainly to people in the Church, especially young people. He's asking them to do simple things: like pray for Darfur and the others in Sudan, to ask their elders to pray as well and to start speaking about this in their congregations. Then, in turn, he hopes the churches put pressure on their respective governments to move on Darfur and then aid in the redevelopment of the entire country.


"Do you think if Judas had not hanged himself and he went to shake hands with Christ, Christ would not have accepted him? It's very hard to give your hand to somebody when you know fully well he's the source of pain for so many innocent people. Yet I have to do it. It's an act of will."


Redevelopment, he agreed, is enormously difficult and complicated. Consider that he and others will have to work with the same president and government that perpetrated genocide under President Omar al Bashir. In fact, when he went back for an official visit to Khartoum last year, for a meeting of Catholic bishops, he was greeted by Mr. Bashir, who inquired after his health.

Nina Shea, a religious rights activist at the Hudson Institute in Washington, wrote in the National Review that Mr. Bashir's portrait "should hang in the halls of infamy somewhere between Hitler and Pol Pot."

Bishop Gassis is obviously aware of what Mr. Bashir and his cohorts have done but his aim is to bring peace. And, as a Christian, he must believe in forgiveness.

"Do you think if Judas had not hanged himself and he went to shake hands with Christ, Christ would not have accepted him? It's very hard to give your hand to somebody when you know fully well he's the source of pain for so many innocent people. Yet I have to do it. It's an act of will."

He said over the many years his country was being savaged he never arrived at the point where he lost his own faith. But plenty of times he wondered where God was.

"Why are you allowing the suffering of the innocent people? You don't will it but you have left it that our children are being enslaved. Why? I don't have the answer. I arrived at the point where I felt despondent, depressed. It comes to everyone. No one is an exception."



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Charles Lewis "Working to rebuild 'a broken humanity'." National Post, (Canada) May 10, 2008.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

PHOTO: Brett Gundlock/National Post

THE AUTHOR

Charles Lewis writes for the National Post.

Copyright © 2008 National Post




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