|7/21/2014 8:09:00 AM|
Bishop says world attention could save lives in Sudan's Nuba Mountains
Catholic News ServiceNEW YORK — Three years of near-daily bombings in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan have created a sustained humanitarian emergency that includes severe food shortages, wholesale displacement of people and limited access to medical care.
Bishop Macram Max Gassis, who retired last October as head of the Diocese of El Obeid, Sudan, said heightened international attention to the situation could save lives.
Bishop Gassis said bombings disrupt the agricultural cycle and the people are unable to grow their own food. There is limited safe access to the region for international aid groups.
On May 1, government planes targeted Mother of Mercy, the only functioning hospital in the Nuba Mountains. More than 200 patients were in the hospital at the time, but no one was injured. The 80-bed hospital, established by Bishop Gassis, serves more than 150,000 people each year. He said the government denied bombing the hospital.
The bishop visited the United States to advocate for peace and raise money for charitable institutions and programs he instituted in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan's South Kordofan state. He spoke at a July 17 briefing, co-sponsored by Caritas Internationalis, at the Church Center for the United Nations.
A long-standing conflict between the government of Sudan and opposition forces was renewed in June 2011, when the Sudanese armed forces initiated bombing in the Nuba Mountains to target the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North. More than 1 million people in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states have been displaced by the fighting, according to the United Nations.
In an interview with Catholic News Service, Bishop Gassis said the Nuba is an ethnic group characterized by unity and diversity uncommon in other areas of Africa. They identify themselves primarily as Nuba and secondarily as members of various tribes, he said.
"They are a hard-working, dignified people," who include Muslims, Christians and "Africans of traditional belief," the bishop said. "There is room for direct evangelization."
The Nuba Mountains have seven Catholic parishes, as well as the hospital, mother and child centers, a primary school and a teacher-training institute.
"The church is Sudanese in its leadership and membership. Missioners are there to help the local church," Bishop Gassis explained.
"The church is growing in number and quality," the bishop said. "In times of persecution, the church becomes really strong."
Bishop Gassis said the "regime" of President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum, the country's capital, is pursuing a policy of assimilation, which he equated to ethnic cleansing and genocide.
"They want to impose a reality that is not there. They want everyone to speak Arabic, become Arabic and adopt Arabic customs and traditions," he said.
"As Catholics, we do not accept this process of assimilation," he said. "To assimilate is to destroy identity. It is for us a form of genocide or ethnic cleansing. We are with the people because the church respects the tradition, culture and customs of the people. That's why we call it the universal church."
Bishop Gassis described a catechist in his diocese who refused to make a forced profession of Islamic faith. He was verbally harassed, then physically tortured and ultimately tied to a cross in recognition of his Christian belief, the bishop said. When he was released to the custody of his friends, the catechist wrote to the bishop and said he did not feel worthy to be a catechist.
He joined the liberation movement, became a local judge and was killed in a kidnapping attempt, the bishop said.
Bishop Gassis recalled a meeting of catechists after his own 18-year self-imposed exile from the country for security reasons. One of the catechists gave him a small piece of paper with a note from an absent colleague. "'Father bishop, welcome!' it said. 'I want to come to see you, but I am shy because I am naked.'"
The bishop sent clothes to the catechist, who arrived for an "emotional and moving encounter," he said.
Bishop Gassis said governments, international organizations and the Catholic Church could mitigate suffering and hasten peace in Sudan if they gave serious attention to the situation.
He said the government in Khartoum is hampering the peace process.
"The peace dialogue is a monologue. It's window-dressing. The government is a farce. They use words whose meaning they do not know," he said.
Bishop Gassis said the government should first stop killing its own people, then enter a civilized dialogue about establishing peace and getting food to the people who need it.
"Human rights were not invented by governments and are not the monopoly of states. Human rights are natural rights, divine rights. Governments are supposed to abide by and protect human rights," he said.
Bishop Gassis said he is "a simple shepherd who is frustrated and angry because I see the hypocrisy of the international community. I am a watchdog. If they touch the dignity of the people, I will intervene. I will not budge. I will not mince my words or sugarcoat them."
He faulted the U.N. Security Council and UNICEF for putting politics ahead of people in a precarious situation. On July 14, the Security Council voted to authorize cross-border humanitarian aid in Syria without the consent of the Syrian government. Bishop Gassis said there is no similar provision for suffering Sudanese.
"Why not? They don't like the black faces of the Nuba?" he asked.
The bishop said the Syrian model has potential for Sudan and he hopes "God will change the attitude of those who can help, but don't, either willfully, or through neglect or ignorance."
Bishop Gassis said in Sudan, as elsewhere, "When politics violates the dignity of the human person, the church should have the guts to say so." He praised Caritas Internationalis for delivering lifesaving food, but said Catholics could do more.
He suggested a program of prayer and action in parishes for the people of Nuba, starting with a mention in the Prayers of the Faithful. He said this would generate material help, which he called "love in action."
Bishop Gassis said he hoped the Catholic bishops of the United States would prod the U.S. government to be a catalyst at the U.N. to pressure the Sudanese government to work for and accept a peaceful resolution to the long-running hostilities.
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