|2/15/2000: Hearings on Religious Persecution in Sudan: Professor Gaspar Biro Oral Testimony|
February 15, 2000
PROFESSOR BIRO: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Let me begin by stating that I feel very honored to be here today testifying as a former Special Rapporteur, that is, as somebody who has discharged the mandate two years before.
What I am going to say here--I will focus on government-sanctioned religious repression in Sudan between 1993 and 1998, which is the period when I acted as a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Sudan. It is a brief overview and a brief synthesis of those 11 reports which I have written and submitted to the United Nations General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights in these years.
I must emphasize that these reports are written in the dominant UN jargon, and they reflect only one small part of the huge human suffering of the Sudan. One has to go there and look into the eyes of those orphans, those children and those women to see and to feel the abyss, the unspeakable atrocities which they have undergone.
Mr. Chairman, distinguished commissioners, the performance of the Government of the Sudan in the past decade has led to human disaster in Sudan. According to some estimates, about 90 percent of the population is living on but rather below the poverty line, and amidst this situation, religious persecution is widespread and has been widespread during the past decade as this regime came into power by a coup d'etat on the 30th of June, 1989.
As I concluded in virtually all my reports submitted to the General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights, and accepted--these reports were voted on in the General Assembly, and resolutions are adopted by a majority vote, or even without a vote in some cases--these reports have reiterated more or less the same conclusion. In the Sudan in the past decade, the whole range of internationally-recognized human rights were and are being violated on a daily basis by agents of the Government of the Sudan or by certain members of the rebel factions acting on their own in Southern Sudan.
Let me just quote at random. There are five such Resolutions. Resolution Number 73 of 1996 of the Commission on Human Rights on the situation of human rights in the Sudan. The Commission at that time expressed its deep concern that continued serious human rights violations in the Sudan, including summary executions, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, detentions without due process, enforced or involuntary disappearances, violations of the rights of women and children, slavery and slavery-like practices, forced displacement of persons and systematic torture, the denial of freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and obviously, it expressed serious concern about reports of religious persecution and forced conversion to Islam in government-controlled areas of the Sudan.
This is only a small part of the bulk of the Resolutions which were adopted during the past year, I must say with great sadness, with little impact on the situation on the ground. I am not talking about the diplomatic or political level.
Among the cases of violations of freedom of religion, freedom of conscience of Christians and those people who are holders of traditional African beliefs, in fact, actually, I documented in my reports patterns of discrimination, and I will enumerate here some of them, the most important and most outrageous of them.
These are harassment, ill treatment, and restriction of the freedom of movement by members of the security forces of ordinary Christian citizens as well as church personnel, the clergy and nuns and leaders of various Christian denominations in the Sudan; expulsion of priests, missionaries and nuns from certain locations in the North and government-controlled towns in Southern Sudan; arbitrary closing of Christian schools, which is still going on. In certain areas like Damazin [ph.] Province, one of the most notorious areas in this regard, Christian preaching has been forbidden since 1992.
Another pattern is the confiscation of Church-owned land and other properties, which is and was the routine of the day; constant refusal to issue permits for building new churches; closure and destruction of religious centers in areas inhabited by Southerners displaced in Khartoum and other towns in Northern Sudan; demolition of churches, especially in the provinces, for example, in Kanana [ph.], which started earlier, in the early 1990's; arbitrary interdiction of prayer and Christian religious celebrations; prevention or delay by administrative means of humanitarian and relief activities by churches; use of food and other relief as a method of Islamization in the war zones in Southern Sudan, in the government-controlled areas, both by authorities and Islamic nongovernment organizations closely working with the Sudan Government, targeting Christians and persons of traditional African beliefs; conversion to Islam of individuals under threat, particularly in the government-controlled areas in Southern Sudan; a general policy of intimidation of Christians and the imprint and strengthening of a feeling of insecurity; systematic, indiscriminate and deliberate aerial bombardment of civilian targets in Southern Sudan, as the Nuba Mountains--we just heard the latest cases--in particular, churches, hospitals, relief and distribution centers, and schools.
In 1994, in early October, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir announced the abolition of the 1992 Missionary Act, which was generally considered repressive and discriminatory against the Sudanese churches. While this announcement was welcomed by the international community and by those concerned in the Sudan, soon it was revealed that something worse was going to happen.
On October 4, 1994, a provisional order entitled, "The Miselenas [ph.] Amendment Act of Organization of Voluntary Work" was made public. The Catholic Bishops' Conference, in a paper made public in 1994, considered this new Act of 1994 as, and I quote, "the most comprehensive, total, and far-reaching attempt to control and potentially terminate the life and the activity of the Church in the Sudan." As far as I know, the legal situation has not changed since then.
Mr. Chairman, let me briefly refer to an aspect which is not much publicly discussed in international organizations and the media, and that is the religious persecution against members, including the leaders, the imams, or the traditional Sudanese Islamic sects and orders.
Since 1989, the activities of traditional Sudanese Islamic orders and sects were systematically severely contained by the Government. Leaders of these orders and sects, and especially ordinary members, who are the most exposed and who were considered as political opponents or just not displaying enough their loyalty to the new rulers, were harassed, arbitrarily arrested, subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or forced into exile.
Here are some excerpts from one of the many protest letters to the Government about such practices, signed by prominent figures of the Ansar [ph.] Order. Following the arrest on May 16, 1995 of former Prime Minister Sadik El-Magdi [ph.], the leading imam of the Ansar, on charges of involvement in subversive activities--I received personally a copy of that letter from Ansar members--I quote from this letter: "Since the beginning of this regime, the Ansar have been subjected to continuous harassment and intimidation, which started with intimidating their leadership, confiscating their properties, and denying them their civil rights and their freedom of expression. The Ansar imams and preachers have been subjected to harassment and imprisonment. The Grand Mahdis [ph.], which includes the Mahdis Stone and the Ansar headquarters, has been confiscated in May 1993 by the Government."
Finally, let me say a few words about the policy of jihad, which is an official policy of this Government and was an official policy after 1989.
Calls to jihad by the Government of Sudan representatives meant in this period--I am talking about the period 1993-1998--in general two things. One, when such calls were made in public, it meant that the Government has the intention to intensify the fighting against Southern rebels; and second, it meant the adding of further groups to the list of domestic enemies of the regime. This list was led by the SPLA mainstream, led by John Garang.
Public calls to jihad by senior Government representatives at rallies, which were well-publicized by the State-controlled communication channels, were made principally in the period under discussion with the view of preparing the Sudanese public opinion with access to media for the mobilization of new resources in the war in the South. In practice, the effects of such calls were further economic hardships imposed on the population, since additional money had to be spent for military purposes; a new wave of harassment and arrest of suspected political opponents, and a new campaign of enforced recruitment of young men in the North, especially in the Khartoum. These young men, Mr. Chairman and distinguished Commissioners, Arabs and non-Arabs alike, who had usually just finished their secondary schools, were sent to the battlefield following a summary training and in most cases became easy targets of the more experienced rebels, ending their young lives as cannon fodder in senseless military operations in the South.
Let me just quote briefly from a 1994 official Government of the Sudan document which was circulated as a UN official document, in which the Government explained its concept of jihad.
"The term 'jihad,' which is Arabic for 'just war,' is part of the cultural and linguistic heritage of the Sudanese people, and we make no apologies," said the representative of the Government of the Sudan in the United Nations, "for using the term in the context of the just war which the majority of the Sudanese are waging to safeguard the common interests of the society."
"The struggle for self-defense against aggression in this context is the most just struggle, and the people there were right to describe it as the symbols they cherish."
Mr. Chairman, the Government of the Sudan is continuously claiming that it is speaking on behalf of the majority of the people. This is only a presumption, since free and fair elections have not been held in Sudan since 1989.
I am running out of time, so I will stop here. I will be happy to answer your specific questions. Thank you.