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.
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.
In some ways the Islamic regime's rapprochement is working. The United States has increased its diplomatic presence in the capital. The Bush administration gave Khartoum a passing grade on progress under the first reporting phase of the Sudan Peace Act. In April, after intense lobbying by the Sudan government, the UN Commission on Human Rights voted to end a longstanding mandate for a Special Rapporteur to report to the UN on the human-rights violations in Sudan. Human-rights experts complain that the gains for Khartoum are coming despite frequent ceasefire violations and lack of progress toward self-determination or religious freedom for south Sudan, or regard for the war's 2 million casualties.
Mr. Kusunoki told WORLD he realized the personal overtures could be a new way for the Islamic regime to win points in the international community as well as among American evangelicals. "The criticism of people like me is that I have never seen the other side. I felt that was fair." He said he also had to consider his role in a church-based relief organization. "We have to come to grips with our calling. We are first and foremost a church and our calling is to share the gospel. When we have the opportunity to share the gospel, we have the responsibility and obligation to do that."
In the end, the ambassador's phone call from Khartoum was compelling enough to put Mr. Kusunoki and five members of his church on a plane last November. They spent three days in the capital, including a brief and, according to Mr. Kusunoki, "formal" meeting with Mr. Bashir.
A longer visit-five days-followed in May, included an extended, and less formal, meeting with Mr. Bashir. This time, instead of using Arabic and speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Bashir spoke directly to Mr. Kusunoki in English. When he told his guest he wanted peace in Sudan, Mr. Kusunoki said he told the president, "There is no way you can take away what I have already seen-the indiscriminate bombing and forced famine, and children suffering needlessly."
Mr. Kusunoki acknowledged that the meetings included "a lot of rhetoric and propaganda." Nevertheless, he carried along his Bible and said he took several opportunities to speak about the gospel: "I pushed them on religious-liberty questions, and what I heard from them was mixed."
On the second visit the regime granted the pastor two requests: to visit Mr. Amum in prison and to carry on regional satellite television both the Jesus film and a Safe Harbor specially made documentary about the war and relief efforts called Footsteps of Peace. Both aired on May 25.
When Mr. Kusunoki learned of Mr. Amum's imprisonment only days before his trip to Khartoum, he never imagined he could actually visit him. The trip to Soba Prison a few miles south of Khartoum happens to run within a stone's throw of what was once the main military camp for Osama bin Laden. During his trip to the prison Mr. Kusunoki saw peace camps with "horrific" conditions. At one site, 200,000 people are surviving on four water wells in 115-degree heat. The camp along the banks of the Blue Nile trained mujahideen guerrillas from all over the Islamic world. Mr. bin Laden was often found there between 1994 and 1995, before Sudanese government officials kicked him out of the country and he made his way to Afghanistan.
When the two pastors met, Mr. Amum told his American friend he did not want him to petition the government for his release. Only by paying the land fee could Mr. Amum clear his name and the church's claim to its property, he said. Already local churches had raised $1,000. Safe Harbor provided the remaining $1,700, and the judge agreed to drop the case. Churchgoers celebrated Mr. Amum's return with a five-hour worship service two days later with church attendance more than doubled.
"All the time we are working in the south we have been ignoring the church in the north and the difficulty they have been going through," said Mr. Kusunoki. "It's certainly not the same as the war and famine of the south, but there is poverty and discrimination and persecution that needs our attention."