When evangelical activist Brad Phillips told senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa about what he had seen and heard during a recent trip to South Kordofan, Sudan, they called an emergency hearing.
The stories of atrocities carried out by Sudanese forces and allied militia have riveted world media attention since mass killings began in early June: house-to-house searches, summary executions, collection of bodies like trash loaded on trucks in bags, the digging and filling of mass graves, bombing of farms and villages, and chasing Nubans with attack helicopters into the Nuba mountains.
Fresh, firsthand accounts are the stuff of which great committee hearings are made.
But as compelling as the testimony was, the hearing made clear that there is no apparent solution. The hearing also brought into sharp focus the religious identities of both the perpetrators and the victims, as well as those of some of the participants in the hearing, and shed light on how those identities informed their perspectives.
The current violence began in the run up to the July 9 inauguration of the newly independent South Sudan. South Kordofan is a northern border province, and home to many supporters of the SPLM, the political movement aligned with the South, and the SPLA-North, one of its armed wings. History has left them behind, in the name of peace, to face the vengeance of a regime led by indicted war criminals.
The ethnic Nuba, who are Black Africans, and predominantly Christian of various stripes, have been the target of a long-term ethnic cleansing and “Arabization” campaign by Khartoum. Hundreds of thousands had been killed as part of the wider civil war in which some two million people died, until the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord (to which the UN and the U.S. were signatories) slowed the violence.
Unfortunately for the Nuba, the peace accord placed them in the northern side of the divided nation. The Nuba are concentrated largely in ten towns in five counties in South Kordofan province, including the capital, Kadugli. The era of forced conversions and teaching Arab-centric history in schools, has given way to what many are grimly calling a Final Solution.
Bishop Andudu Adam Elnail, the Anglican Bishop of Kadugli, is emerging as the catalytic figure in the public eye. Following the House hearing, he flew to New York to participate in a press conference (his first) and to press the UN Security Council to act. Andudu is unique not only because but for a medical trip to the U.S., he might now be in a mass grave in Kadugli, and not only because he is a refugee bishop, unexpectedly cast onto the international stage—but because he actually represents the people being discussed.
He is a Nuban from Kadugli, where the worst of the atrocities occurred, and is in daily contact with members of his congregation. In his prepared statement at the hearing (as in an earlier interview with RD) he emphasized respect for the pluralist culture of the Nubans, in which Muslims and Christians maintain a good relationship.
“We all belong to one human family, whatever our national, ethnic or political differences,” he wrote in his prepared testimony. “The state-sponsored ethnic cleansing campaign is targeting Nuba people, including not only Christians—such as the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Sudanese Church of Christ in Kadugli—but also Muslims, including those who worship at the mosque in Kauda, which a SAF fighter plane recently targeted with ten rockets.”
“We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be. Loving our neighbor requires promoting peace and justice in a world marred by genocidal violence.”
…and the Evangelicals
Brad Phillips, who heads the Virginia-based Persecution Project, now lives in Kenya, and simultaneously serves as the Sudan country director for Voice of the Martyrs, an evangelical agency that since 1967 has focused on helping Christians in restricted countries, emphasizing communist and Muslim countries. It functions as a hub for many other evangelical partner groups, and while it carries out humanitarian aid and support for people persecuted for their faith, evangelization is the core mission. (It has, for example, a project of prayer, seeking conversion of Muslims during Ramadan. Both Subcommittee Chairman Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) stated during the hearing that the books of Voice of the Martyrs founder Richard Wurmbrand were influential in their thinking about religious freedom in the world.)
Phillips hails from a family of Christian Reconstructionists, led by his father Howard Phillips, head of The Conservative Caucus, and an architect of what became the American Religious Right political movement in the 1970s. Brother Doug Phillips is best known for his Texas-based homeschooling publishing house, Vision Forum.
On his father’s in-house TV show in 2007, father and son cast the situation in Sudan at the time, and the work of the Persecution Project, in stark Manichaean terms. The elder Phillips introduced one segment, for example, by saying, “Brad, you have been focusing on the persecution of Christians in Sudan, some two million of them killed by Islamist Marxists…”
The presence at the hearing of Bishop Andudu, a champion of Muslim-Christian cooperation, made it difficult for anyone to cast the Nuban story in such terms.
Rep. Frank Wolf, who sat in as guest of the committee because he shares a longstanding interest in Sudan, seemed to struggle with this. He did acknowledge that “some” of the two million killed in the civil wars were not Christians—whereas in fact, most of the hundreds of thousands of those killed in Darfur were Muslims.
For his part, Phillips tried to emphasize the notion that churches and their leaders are being targeted. The presumption, he said, is that if you are a Christian you are part of the SPLM opposition group, and that the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) sought church membership lists. But this may not be strictly accurate. The SAF, according to reliable reports, had short lists of community and political leaders, some but not all of whom were Christian clergy. They also used voter registration lists to identify SPLM supporters. Significantly, at the top of the list is SPLM leader Abdul Aziz Adam al-Hilu, who happens to be Muslim.
“A Fundamentally Evil Government”
Rep. Wolf, a “Family stalwart,” went on a tear against the Khartoum regime. “This is a fundamentally evil government,” he declared. “And until you remove Bashir, this will continue!”
“The UN has failed,” he continued. “The UN failed in Rwanda. The UN failed in Bosnia. The UN failed in Darfur!” Responding to reports that UN peacekeepers in Kadugli not only failed to protect, but actually turned internally displaced people over to Sudanese intelligence, he said, “It sounds like the Nazis to me. It sounds like something out of a bad movie!”
Wolf believes that Bashir is worse than Libyan leader Qaddafi and President Assad of Syria, that after 21 years in power, Bashir must be removed, and that the U.S. should close the Sudanese Embassy and expel its diplomats. He said Bashir is like Hitler, should be arrested and “should be taken to the Hague and tried.”
Brad Phillips said he agreed “100 percent” with Wolf.
Wolf’s tirade underscores the hard truth that the international system has little capacity to prevent mass atrocities, or to stop them in the early stages. The pioneering work of the privately, but seat-of-the-pants-financed, Satellite Sentinel Project has shown what can be done to document and expose aggressive military postures and on the ground horrors, notably mass graves.
Bishop Andudu called on the U.S. government to use its own satellites to document the mass graves and to help to preserve the evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The U.S. government seems to have recognized the problem. Ranking Member Donald Payne (D-NJ) said that the Obama administration had just announced several initiatives to avert atrocities, including the establishment of an Atrocities Prevention Board.
A False Moral Equivalence?
But much of the hearing focused on the inadequacy of both the American and the United Nations’ response to the crisis. Chairman Smith was clearly upset that no one from the State Department was available to testify. And there was a deeper issue. Smith said, apparently referring to elements of the Obama administration.
While Phillips’ fresh reports and documentation captured the attention of members of the House from both parties, when he took his information to the State Department, he said he was told that their policy was one of “moral equivalency between the two sides.”
Smith protested: “SPLM-North members are not bombing people indiscriminately, driving Arabs off their lands and out of their homes nor going door-to-door to identify their perceived enemies and execute them. The Government of Sudan’s military forces are.”
“Some are trying to down play the overwhelming responsibility of the Sudanese government for the devastation taking place in Southern Kordofan by referring to the refusal of the SPLM-North to lay down their arms to negotiate with Khartoum,” Smith observed. “But there is no moral equivalence between the SPLM-North’s actions and those of the government.”
Phillips’ experience at the State Department did not surprise Jonathan Hutson, Director of Communications for the anti-genocide Enough Project of the Center for American Progress, who attended the hearing.
“The Obama administration’s overly even-handed approach has been frustrating to all of us in the anti-genocide movement,” he told Religion Dispatches.
“As the world can see, independence for South Sudan has not brought peace to Darfur or to the border areas of South Kordofan and Abyei. The administration has assigned a false moral equivalence to those most responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
In light of the steady stream of credible reports of atrocities that have come out of South Kordofan since early June when the campaign began, and are by all accounts, ongoing, “Our government should get off the fence,” Phillips declared, “and distinguish between the victims and the perpetrators of genocide.”
An Eyewitness Account
Since the hearing, the story of the crisis in South Kordofan has continued to command international political and media attention. Following the hearing, Bishop Andudu flew to New York to join human rights groups in urging members of the Security Council to take action. News organizations led coverage of their press conference with the Bishop’s call for intervention by the Security Council.
Sudanese exile and human right groups organized a rally across from the UN. Hutson and the Bishop spoke along with a woman named Gedila Musa, a Nuban expatriate who lives in the U.S. but was in Kadugli in June. In her speech she told of witnessing the horrors of women fleeing their homes, carrying their children into the mountains—because she was fleeing with them. Some days, they had no food or access to water.
“People have to be very careful when walking,” she told the crowd.
“They have to remain very low and hide in order to avoid being targeted by airplanes. People are very tired, the mountains are very big and it is tiring to walk. I personally was very very exhausted. The elderly and kids who are sick or injured have nobody to turn to, there are no doctors.”
“Some days, people don’t drink at all,” she said. “They have to wait till the planes leave so they can go outside and get water before they come back and bomb again. The elderly have been put in the mountains because they can’t walk every day.”
“On 17th of June in the morning,” she concluded,
“bombing was heavy, two planes, two MIGs and helicopters were bombing Kadugli. I looked at my kids and told them that we have to leave. We relied on God and left. Our travels were long and it took four days to get a plane to be able to leave the region. If we had waited just one day, we wouldn’t have made it out of there alive.”
Afterward, the UN’s press office took the unusual step of issuing a press release featuring a statement from Bishop Andudu—as well as a webcast and a podcast.
C-SPAN (which broadcast the proceedings live) featured Chairman Smith on its Sunday Newsmakers show. The host who clearly noted the religious themes of the hearing, asked Smith what motivates his human rights work in the House. He said that all of his work in this area is “motivated by my faith. I mentioned earlier about being our brothers and sisters keepers,” he said.
“We have been admonished by the scriptures—I am a Catholic—and I believe passionately in our Lord’s statement, what you do to the least of these, you do likewise to me. And that could be any disenfranchised person.”
He went on to say that his concern applied to anyone, Christians, Animists, and Muslims in Sudan.
The Government of Sudan responded to the hearing and other events of the week, declaring:
“The military operations carried out by the Sudanese authorities in South Kordofan target the rebels, regardless of race, color, religion, and attempts to portray this as targeting the Nuba peoples… are deliberate attempts to distort and damage Sudan’s image.”