Ed West meets Bishop Macram Max Gassis, the prelate punished by the Sudanese state when he exposed its atrocities in Darfur
When I ask Bishop Macram Max Gassis to describe his diocese, which spans both Sudan and the newly independent South Sudan, his reply is chilling.
“My diocese is immersed in war and killing,” he says. He describes recent violence in the disputed Nuba Mountains as “a carbon copy of what is happening in Darfur”, a conflict in which hundreds of thousands of people reportedly died.
Long before George Clooney and the international community paid attention to the atrocities in Darfur, Bishop Gassis campaigned to highlight human rights abuses in his homeland. The bishop is visiting London to raise awareness of the desperate plight of his countrymen. This is not the first time he has spoken out: back in 1988 he incurred the wrath of the Sudanese government for highlighting its atrocities in Darfur.
Bishop Gassis was born in Khartoum in 1938 and educated by the Comboni Missionaries in the Sudanese capital. He then studied in Sunningdale, Berkshire, before attending seminary in Italy and being ordained in Verona.
Returning to his home diocese, he served as assistant parish priest in Wad Medani, in central Sudan, in 1965, establishing new parishes in that region, which lies to the west of the Blue Nile.
The country itself was still new; having been ruled by Britain and Egypt as a “condominium”, Sudan had become independent on January 1 1956.
“I remember that great day,” Bishop Gassis tells me. “The Union Jack and Egyptian flag were being lowered simultaneously.”
Like elsewhere in Africa, there was optimism in the beginning. But the first Sudanese civil war had already begun months earlier and would last until 1972, leaving half a million people dead. A second war lasted from 1983 to 2005, this time costing up to two million lives – mostly civilians dying from starvation and drought.
As a nation state Sudan was unworkable because Arab Muslims in the north were unwilling to share power with black Christians and animists in the south.
“All the ministries were in the hands of northerners,” the bishop says, except “one given to a southerner – animal resources”.
As a young priest Bishop Gassis served as a chaplain at the University of Khartoum and worked for two charitable societies, St Vincent de Paul and St Anne. He earned a degree in canon law from the Catholic University of America and also served as chairman of Caritas Sudan, before becoming Bishop of El Obeid diocese in 1988.
As the only Arabic-speaking member of the Sudanese bishops’ conference, Bishop Gassis served as the liaison between the Sudanese government and the bishops. Relations were strained from “day one of my episcopacy”, he says. He intervened after some Christians were whipped and imprisoned because they repaired the roof of their chapel. He raised the subject with the visiting president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, and they were released. Naturally the Sudanese government was not too happy.
After he testified before the US Congress about the atrocities committed by the Sudanese government against its people in Darfur, Khartoum brought a criminal indictment against him. But he continued to speak out, addressing the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva for four consecutive years in the 1990s. He is evidently at ease with media, telling me: “I don’t call you a reporter. I call you a brother, because I am a media man myself. The media is a powerful procession. You can either help or destroy.
When the media talks, people listen.
“Sudan is a pariah state, and we cannot [let it] carry on starving, killing and raping people, with the Church just saying: ‘Let us keep quiet for peace’s sake.’ The bishop is a shepherd. He is obliged by the very fact of vocation to stand up and protect his flock, even at the cost of paying the consequences. That’s exactly what I’m doing.”
Hopes were raised last year when the Sudanese government allowed southerners to vote to secede, which they did in overwhelming numbers.
“The government had no choice,” Bishop Gassis says. “How many millions of dollars was the regime wasting continuing the fight against the SPLA [the southern rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army]? The SPLA would go there and destroy all the oil wells so they would never get a dime.”
The war, he says, is unending and pointless. “You don’t solve problems with guns or force,” he argues. “You complicate them even more.”
Both Sudan and South Sudan possess vast quantities of oil. Geographically almost all the oil wells are in the South or in disputed areas, with the fossil fuel accounting for some 98 per cent of the South’s revenue. But as the oil passes through the north’s territory Khartoum also gains.
“Oil is a blessing for the Arab countries, and a curse for us,” the bishop says. “If the north had been more reasonable to say: ‘Let us be honest and clear about how we can deal with our new brothers’, do you think the South would say no? The entire pipeline goes through Sudan.”
The attitude of the government in Khartoum is to blame, he says.
“They think these blacks are backward. They are still living in dreams of the past. They think they are more intelligent, educated, developed. But if you’re going to cheat, cheat with intelligence, not force.”
In January 2005 the Sudanese government and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the political party allied to the SPLA, signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This culminated last year with the south voting for independence. But the peace was incomplete, failing, in the bishop’s words, to bring a “safe, just conclusion”.
“Where is the recognition of the Church?” he asks. “We played an important role. We sensitised public opinion.”
Many areas remained disputed, including Abyei, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile, all regions where the Arab government has persecuted the population some extent (as well as Darfur, which also remains up in the air).
The long-running conflict has racial as well as religious aspects. While the north is Muslim and the south mostly Christian (with a minority practising traditional African religions), the Arab-dominated Khartoum government has also turned its guns on black Muslims in Darfur in the west of the country. In the centre, among people such as the Nuba, the government has also had a long-running policy of Arabisation and Islamisation. Now, says Bishop Gassis, “the Nuba speak Arabic better than the Arabs”. But “they are African people, they are not Arabs”, he insists. “If a Nuba went to Saudi Arabia and asked to marry a king’s daughter, would he treat him as an Arab?
He’d say: ‘Get out, you black slave.”’
Although the bishop himself appears Arab to western eyes, he laughs when I ask him if that is his background.
“I am not an Arab,” he explains. “My great-grandmother was from Darfur, my grandmother from Somalia. How can I be an Arab? I’m mixed race, I’m the best representative because I don’t belong to any tribe, because I’m neutral. After me there is going to be trouble. My co-adjutor is a Nuba, so I tell him: ‘Keep quiet and let me do the dirty work.’”
Eventually, after sending soldiers to the government “to take the meanest jobs” the Nuba sided with the South – and are paying the price.
“They are using Russian-made Antonov bombers to drop bombs on civilians, killing our women, children and elderly,” Bishop Gassis says. “The most precious things are children, and they’re killing those precious creatures who carry the children. And the elders… the elders are the custodians and guardians of our culture. When they kill these three categories we will have no more society, no more Nuba. Today this is happening right in front of our eyes.”
The indiscriminate bombing has forced farmers to leave their fields, and seek sanctuary anywhere, even in caves, among “snakes, scorpions, spiders”. The farmers cannot farm, and so “at the moment we have hunger”.
Yet the Church has, paradoxically, flourished, for in the absence of government in many parts of Sudan the Church has become the closest thing, especially in the Nuba mountains.
“We don’t have one NGO,” the bishop says. “We only have the Church, and it is the Catholic Church. We are not a government, but whatever we receive from our donors we use. We build wells. We start institutions for the training of teachers. And through this isolation the Church expanded.”
Naturally the Church, as a potential rival, arouses hostility in the government, and Bishop Gassis accuses the Sudanese government of the murder of a Caritas representative, and the grisly crucifixion of the bishop’s catechist (“they put him in the form of a cross,” he says). Another catechist had his throat slit. The government has also allegedly burned churches.
“If I cannot defend my flock, then I am unfit, I am unwell,” he says. “I’m a bishop of a territory that is ridden by war, famine, slavery and rape. At the moment I want to concentrate on one problem at a time.
“We want people to pray. And that’s why we want to express our gratitude to people in Cafod who have been near us.
“I talk to people in the Catholic press. I ask them to move the Catholics of this country, not only to have the knowledge and awareness but also to pray for God’s protection of these people. We should talk about it, because the Khartoum government is terrified to have their reputation tarnished. The media is the only hope to end their foul game, [otherwise] this is the elimination of an entire race.”
Bishop Gassis adds that only the West can help because the Chinese “listen only to issues that pertain to them because of the oil. Nothing else. Everything that comes through the [UN] Security Council is blocked by the Chinese and the Russians.”
He adds: “We would like your country to put pressure on the regime of Khartoum, to stop bombing innocent people [and] to stop maiming innocent people, women, children and elderly.” .
Now 74, Bishop Gassis shows no signs of slowing down and reels off a list of politician-heavy European cities he’s about to embark on.
“I spent five years talking to the UN,” he says. “I spoke to Congress in America. I met Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright… I went to places I never dreamt of, to see and meet people I never dreamt of seeing. Not for my sake, but for my people. Do I care for my image? I care for my people.”
You can support Bishop Gassis through Cafod. For more information, visit Cafod.org.uk or call 020 7733 7900