The dusty roads of Sudan are a long way from Mainstreet, Virginia. Separated by thousands of miles, a chasm of ideology and an ocean of blood, most Virginia Baptists have been slow to recognize and even slower to respond to the almost unfathomable atrocities committed by President Omar al-Bashir.
In his continuing reign of terror, entire villages, particularly in the Darfur region, have been obliterated. Palm-thatched huts put to the torch, animals slaughtered, men murdered, boys pressed into the militia and forced to attack their own people, girls as young as four and women raped. It has been reported that women living in refugee camps have grown to expect rape as routine. Girls leaving the camp to collect firewood know they will probably be raped before they return and males residing in the camps know that any attempt to protect their girls and women will be certain to get themselves killed. How many have been victims of al-Bashir’s madness? Who can possibly know the measure of human suffering? It is beyond calculation.
Deaths, however, can be numbered. For comparison purposes, let’s use populations we know something about. Since coming to power in a military coup in 1989, Bashir’s troops have been responsible for an estimated 400,000 murders — most within the past five years. That number is greater than the combined populations of Roanoke County, Williamsburg, Charlottesville, Falls Church, Abingdon, Fredericksburg, South Boston, and the city of Richmond.
In March of 2005, the United Nations decided to send peacekeeping troops to Sudan, and to no one’s surprise, they were not welcomed. Murder, rape and pillage continued unabated. Last week the International Criminal Court, meeting in The Hague, condemned al-Bashir and issued a warrant for his arrest. He has vowed to resist.
Trouble for Sudan is nothing new. Ever since Arab-speaking traders began to settle in the region and subdue the black population, conflict has erupted. Ruled by Egyptian and Turkish sultans from 1820, and by a British-Egyptian alliance from the 1880s, Sudan became an Islamic state in 1885. Sudan gained its independence from Britain in 1956 and a civilian government was set up. It survived for two years. Between then and 1989, when al-Bashir seized power, governments arose and were toppled in rapid succession with strife between the Islamic north and the largely Christian, southern Darfur region spilling over into civil war at times.
Making the area still more volatile was the discovery in 1978 of large oil reserves in the south. With the wealth potential presented by these oil fields came new tensions, conflicts and forceful removal of obstructionist tribes and peoples by the government forces. In recent years, China has developed these oil reserves to feed its voracious industrial energy needs.
For al-Bashir, trouble began to get serious when the United Nations and other assistance groups began to document the atrocities which are still are being denied by the government. Eventually, the International Criminal Court began to examine the evidence and handed down its guilty verdict against the dictator.
Al-Bashir has called the arrest warrant issued by the court evidence of new western colonialism saying it is a “blow to international justice” and an insult to Islam. He is determined to ignore the warrant but has responded by expelling aid agencies.
But what makes the issue so thorny is that the ICC, formed in 1998 to bring international criminals to justice and ratified by the necessary 60 countries in 2002, has no teeth. That, coupled with the first-ever condemnation of a sitting head of state means that al-Bashir would have to submit to the authority of the court and voluntarily report to the court for justice to be meted out. That will never happen.
Why should this matter to Virginia Baptists, you must be asking by this time. As Christians, we are concerned with issues of justice and human suffering. This, alone is sufficient reason for us to continue watching as events unfold. But added to the mix is the religious factor. When Islam dons the cloak of fundamentalism no other theological perspective is safe. While the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan exists not only because of the Christian and animistic religious influences there, religious differences are not easily tolerated by the Muslims in control.
What should we do? First, we need to continue to monitor human rights violations whether in Darfur or closer to home. Second, we need to contact our legislators urging them to be vigilant in keeping up the pressure. And, of course, we need to pray for all those thousands who are suffering physical, psychological and spiritual trauma at the hands of such a horrible regime.
But there is another reason Virginia Baptists and other Americans should take note of what the ICC has done. The condemnation of al-Bashir has created a climate ripe for an examination of torture accusations under former President George W. Bush. Already some voices are being raised calling for his policies and practices to be scrutinized by the world court.
While it is doubtful that such attitudes could gather steam enough to pull it off, the prospect creates an intriguing and frightening dilemma. On the one hand, would Americans tolerate bowing to the authority of a world court — especially since America opposed it? Not likely. On the other, what would it say to the world if we were to refuse to submit one of our own to the court’s judgment while affirming that other nations should do so? I mention this just in case you didn’t have enough to think about already.
Theologically speaking, the prospect affirms what we Christians know. Judgment is coming. Not just for Omar al-Bashir and other heads of state, but for every one of us. A higher authority will call us to give account. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). Compared to the Sudanese butcher, we look pretty good. The only problem is we will be compared to Christ.
Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy!