Sudan: Bits of peace

International | U.S. minister reports "mixed" progress in personal talks with Islamist leader

Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

For Samuel Dobai Amum of Khartoum, there was no apparent hope of getting out of Soba Prison. For Gary Kusunoki of southern California, there was no hope of getting in. But after an unprecedented opening from Sudan's Islamic government, the two pastors met inside a Sudanese jail cell there May 21, and only hours later, Mr. Amum was released.

Authorities in Sudan jailed Mr. Amum in April after confiscating land on which he erected a mud brick church 11 years ago. Mr. Amum was ordered to pay for the land-7 million Sudanese dinars, or $2,700-or demolish the Episcopal church, known as St. Matthew's Parish, himself. Lacking funds for the land and refusing to destroy a building he said was devoted to God, Mr. Amum was at the mercy of the court. Judge Kamal Abd-Rahaman Alli declared him "rude before the law" and sentenced him to indefinite imprisonment.

That kind of punishment is not unusual for Christians living in areas of Sudan dominated by the National Congress Party (formerly the National Islamic Front) government. The authoritarian regime seized power 14 years ago and imposes Islamic law on both Muslims and non-Muslims. While many churches are allowed to operate, they do not hold the same property rights or level of freedom as Muslim counterparts.

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Mr. Amum's church, an Episcopal congregation of under 100 members, was particularly vulnerable because it was located in Takamol, one of many "peace camps," or quasi-refugee areas that clot the outskirts of Khartoum with the country's overflow of displaced people from two decades of civil war.

What is unusual is the reception granted a Western Christian-and one with a noticeable connection to Sudan's southern rebel movement. Mr. Kusunoki heads Safe Harbor International, a relief agency operated by Calvary Chapel Rancho Santa Margarita, where he is senior pastor. He told WORLD he has made over 25 trips to rebel-held territory in Sudan and has spent over $6 million in relief aid to those victimized by the government in the long-running war.

In 2001 Newsweek profiled Mr. Kusunoki on a 12-man mission to deliver relief to what was then a hot zone of fighting in Western Upper Nile province between government troops and the Sudan People's Liberation Army. The article depicted Mr. Kusunoki, a former policeman, on a daring mission to resupply both civilians and rebels in defiance of Khartoum. Even as Mr. Kusunoki made his trip last month to government headquarters in Khartoum, a team from Safe Harbor was delivering relief to rebel-held areas of Western Upper Nile again.

Why consort with the enemy?

Mr. Kusunoki said his reason was simple: He was asked.

Last year several prominent Sudanese-Americans contacted Mr. Kusunoki, including Elmahdi Habiballa, who is active in California state Republican Party politics and the Muslim founder of the American-Sudanese Council, a California-based foundation with ties to Sudanese President Omar Bashir. Mr. Habiballa told Mr. Kusunoki he was ready to see peace in his homeland and ready to talk with a Christian who worked on the other side to achieve it.

The invitation to the capital came to Mr. Kusunoki from Mahadi Ibrahim. He was Sudan's ambassador to the United States in 1998 when the United States bombed a pharmaceutical plant (believed at the time also to manufacture chemical weapons) outside Khartoum. The strike, retaliation for the bombing of two American embassies in Africa, resulted in Mr. Ibrahim's recall, and he currently serves as a minister in Mr. Bashir's National Congress Party.

Mr. Ibrahim told Mr. Kusunoki the government was aware of his relief efforts in the south, as well as the commitment he had shown to Sudanese war victims in adopting two Sudanese girls orphaned by fighting. He clearly thought Mr. Kusunoki a suitable envoy to spread word of Khartoum's newfound interest in peace.

Attempts to refashion the Islamic government's image began in earnest after Sept. 11, when for a time it looked as though Sudan could become a target of U.S. retaliation along with Afghanistan. Although Mr. bin Laden left the country in 1996, his business interests remained. Rumors circulated that he fled to Sudan in the early days of the Afghanistan war.

Sudan tried to show itself a willing partner in fighting terrorism, sharing intelligence information on al-Qaeda with the Bush administration, even offering evidence that it tried to turn Mr. bin Laden over to the United States during the Clinton administration. It entered into a ceasefire agreement and Kenya-led peace talks with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. Both were mandated under a new U.S. law called the Sudan Peace Act-aimed at bringing both sides to the table and ending both war and the south's disenfranchisement.


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