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.
But a civilizational fight does rage around him. And he’s not removed from any of it. And his tough love for the rebels who would be the independent government in the South does not obscure geopolitical realities. Born in Khartoum, Gassis knows intimately the terror of the regime in the North. And, as Wagner points out, “If the people of the South give the government of southern Sudan greater responsibility, Bishop Gassis will be the outspoken advocate” for them, as he has been, seeing tremendous progress in his tenure as bishop. As Shea tells it, “The South has turned its face to the West; it has abolished Arabic as the main language of education and replaced it with English. It is pro-American and not a terrorist stronghold.” The North, on the other hand, “still hosts and is a supply route for a myriad of Islamist terror groups.” The South “is rich in oil and, for all our sakes, these fields should not be handed over to the genocidal and fanatical [Pres. Omar Hassan al–Bashir].” The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for Bashir for crimes against humanity and genocide. “The North–South war was triggered by the forcible imposition of sharia in the Christian-animist South,” Shea adds.
Gassis’s courage is underscored by the fact that much of his diocese will remain under the authority of Khartoum’s terrorist Islamic government even if the South secedes. But Gassis doesn’t keep his head down. And he worries not only about the religious freedom — and lives — of Sudanese Christians but also about Muslims who have been treated as second-class citizens because of some of their traditions.
This is Christian charity. It is why he serves “legions of Muslims,” as Shea puts it, in his unmistakably “Catholic hospitals, schools, soup kitchens, and other projects without press[ing them] in the least to convert.”
There is also no mistaking or underplaying the hope that drives Gassis and is the best nourishment he has to offer. As Shea tells it, “he has faithfully ministered to the people, baptizing, confirming, ordaining throughout the war years and now preaching to ex-slaves that their God wants them to call Him ‘Father’ — that they are nobody’s slave. He is an extraordinary figure, both a visionary and someone with the ability and drive to get things done.”
As southern Sudan stands at a precipice, Gassis will continue to protect and nourish its budding civilization, under the most impossible of circumstances, reminding us all what we’re capable of.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at email@example.com.