American politicians give speeches on “dialogue” with Islam. In the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, Macram Gassis does it. And he does it through action: Life-endangering charity and clarity.
Gassis is the Catholic bishop of El Obeid, which includes Darfur, and is less than 2 percent Catholic. “The conscience of the South” is how Steve Wagner describes him. Wagner serves on the board of the Bishop Gassis Sudan Relief Fund and spent this past Christmas in the diocese with the 72-year-old bishop.
Southern Sudan faces a referendum this January on separation from the North. As the global West again turned its attention to Sudan, Vice President Biden recently announced that “we’re doing everything in our power to make sure this election on the referendum is viewed by the world as legitimate and fair.” His remarks were unclear and inadequate in a land constantly teetering on the brink of genocide. Independence for the South holds the promise of not only saving countless lives, but establishing a “pro-American, democratic partner” in East Africa, as Charlie Szrom of the American Enterprise Institute emphasizes.
Gassis knows well the need for Western support if a viable, independent state in the hotbed of radical Islam and instability that is the Sudan is to be possible. But like any good father, he tells his people not to expect or get too comfortable with “handouts.” He wants to see the Sudanese truly take responsibility for a new country. Knowing human nature, he considers it the only way, ultimately, to change the face of Sudan. And it follows in the tradition of what he’s been doing there for over two decades: fighting for the dignity and rights of every life in a land that has seen man at his worst. He offers nothing less than truth about authentic liberation.
Because of security and stability concerns, Gassis has had to base many of his operations out of Nairobi. But his service is to Sudanese people, whoever they are, however they pray. “Water,” he tells me, is “not Catholic. It’s not Muslim. It’s water. People need it.” And so he oversees the digging of wells. He calls that his version of the “dialogue” we’re frequently talking about in the West.
Under hellish conditions, Gassis has “brought the Gospel and the sacraments, dug hundreds of wells, erected two modern hospitals — one of which is now the best in all Sudan — many schools and training centers,” Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, observes. He has been a peacemaker, negotiating security arrangements and land grants on behalf of the southern rebels. He “has aggressively recruited priests, nuns, doctors, and nurses to come to the area to serve these tribal peoples,” Shea points out. And he has taken his experiences on the road, “ceaselessly witnessing to the West, before Congress, the U.N., the EU, and other fora, about the jihad taking place against his people,” she continues. He’s done this despite the dangers he’s faced — including a presidentially decreed fatwa on his life.
Get Gassis talking about his diocese and priorities in a casual Western setting, as I recently did, though, and you may have to remind yourself he’s talking about a diocese that has suffered two genocides during his episcopacy. Gassis discusses water and education and other basics of infrastructure, matter-of-factly — with less sense of drama and victimhood than your local building commission.