Home | Comment & Analysis    Tuesday 23 March 2004

Sudan’s peace deal can’t end cultural conflict


By Chander Mehra, Pacific News Service

KHARTOUM, Sudan, March 22, 2004 —Warring parties in oil-rich Sudan — long branded a supporter of terror by the United States and even a temporary home base for Osama bin Laden — may soon stop fighting. Tempted by promises of development assistance and investment, they’re trying to finalize a deal in wavering peace talks in neighboring Kenya. But a short drive from the banks of the Nile to the dusty edge of Khartoum reveals little peace left in a country where Africa meets the Arab world and Christianity confronts Islam.

More than 2 million people have died in Africa’s oldest civil war. Now a peace deal may result in a six-year transitional government. The southerners, many of whom are Christians and animists, will then be given a chance to vote for independence from the Islamic north in a referendum.

But Toby Madout, a veteran political leader from the south, worries about the fate of Christians in the north. He lists some of the Islamic Sharia laws being imposed on Christians here in the capital: the prohibition of alcohol, and the enforcement of Islamic dress for women, who may be punished by police for wearing Western clothes.

In a small hut built from the dust of the desert, Elizabeth Adhol, a mother of seven and grandmother of two who fled the war 17 years ago, feels this clash of cultures under her corrugated roof.

For many years, Adhol’s only income has come from distilling araki, a local spirit made from dates. In good times, she made a five-liter canister every third day. Now she can barely make three a month.

Sometimes up to 30 policemen arrive and dig up the floor of her hut, looking for alcohol and the still. Adhol is then dragged to court.

"When I was in prison last time, no one could take care of my kids. They just went to rubbish dumps to find food," she says.

Adhol’s husband is also a Christian but has remained a soldier for the government, though that involves fighting Christian rebels.

"When I asked how he could work for the government when they treat me so badly, he said: ’I can’t leave. They will kill me.’

"One time, when the police took my alcohol, I ran after them. They asked me for money to give it back. Then they beat me and took the money and the araki. My husband was watching all of it. But they would have shot him if he protested."

Gabriel Malek Matur, chairperson of Sudan African Human Rights Organisation and a Christian southerner, says the low pay of the police is part of the story. "When they raid the houses, they take alcohol and go and sell it," Matur says.

The chief ideologist behind Sudan’s brand of Sharia, Hassan al-Turabi, explained why Christians in Khartoum must also live with Sharia. "(Then) you can’t cheat the police and say you are a Muslim or not a Muslim according to how it suits your case."

Matur tells the story about Alakor Lual Deng, a mother of five who has been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery.

Deng converted to Islam and took a Muslim name in order to get food that is allegedly denied Christians by Muslim welfare organizations. But Deng remained a Christian and showed the Sharia judge the cross she always wears around her neck.

This didn’t stop the judge from sentencing her to stoning for her affair with another man. The man got away with a fine and 100 lashes, as he was unmarried.

According to several human rights organizations, it is common for desperate Sudanese to convert to Islam to gain access to food and money.

While the government earlier this year was busy negotiating a peace built on religious tolerance, up to 3,000 Christians were given a four-week crash course in Islam in Khartoum. According to a chief from the Dinka tribe, they were lured by offers of money, food, cars (which never materialized) and pilgrimages to Mecca, if they converted.

Matur thinks it was all an attempt to show progress to increasingly impatient Saudi Arabian sponsors behind Sudan’s Islamization project.

Many moderate Muslims in Sudan are furious with what they regard as the government’s attempts to eradicate Christianity in Sudan.

"Islam means equality, justice and social responsibility. They do the absolute opposite," says Sheikh Abdalla Al-Rayah, one of the main leaders of the Sufists, who are widely regarded as representing the most popular interpretation of Islam in Sudan.

To Al-Rayah and other more moderate Muslims, a less radical regime would be the desirable side effect of a peace deal. To the Christians in the war-torn south and the desert around Khartoum, the main hope is that Christianity and Islam will allow each other space, just as the Blue and the White Nile share the riverbed after they meet at Khartoum.

"If there is peace, I can go home and grow durra and make alcohol for myself and my people," says Elizabeth Adhol.

PNS contributor Chander Mehra (chandermehra@yahoo.com) is a journalist and former Africa representative of the International Press Institute (IPI), a media freedom watchdog group.

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