Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Sudan: a political solution to religious persecution?

New Europe - November 15th 2010

The battle for religious freedom often goes hand in hand with the struggle for political independence, especially when religion and the state are indivisible. This is the case in Sudan, where for much of the past half-century the Arab Muslim north has waged a merciless civil war against Nilotic southerners, who are African and mainly Christian or animist.

In early 2011 voters in the autonomous region of South Sudan will decide whether to secede from the north and create an independent sovereign state. According to all reliable opinion polling it is almost certain that the south will take this opportunity to control its own destiny. Not surprisingly, leaders of the Christian churches in South Sudan have urged southerners not to throw away this chance to enshrine their inalienable right to freedom of worship.

Ever since Sudan won independence from Britain in 1956, southerners have been treated like second-class citizens in their own country. The south is characterized by abject poverty and a serious lack of public investment in even the most basic infrastructure. As well as starving the south of its fair share of tax revenues, Khartoum has constantly sought to impose Islamist values and sharia law on the south. Civil war broke out immediately after independence and lasted seventeen years.

A decade of uneasy peace followed until the government in Khartoum tried to tear up the Addis Ababa agreement, which had ended the civil war. This agreement had granted the south considerable autonomy and had also recognized the very different religious heritage and practices in the south. Conflict broke out again and lasted for 22 years.

The renewed civil war caused the deaths of at least two million people, and caused many millions more to flee their homes. South Sudan remains littered with landmines. Only now are children in South Sudan going to school instead of learning how to shoot guns. The civil war has left the south one of the least developed and neediest places on the planet.

The civil war finally came to an end in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. South Sudan gained a substantial degree of autonomy and in the past five years has made some progress towards rebuilding its infrastructure and society. The churches and NGOs that played such a courageous role during the civil war by providing moral and material assistance to the south are now in the business of saving souls and not just saving lives.

When analysing the cause of Sudanís horrifying history in recent decades, it would be easy to blame colonialism for creating the conditions in which religious tension developed into war.

Undoubtedly the colonial authorities were deluding themselves if they expected religious harmony to take root in Sudan, such a massive and diverse country, when it gained independence. But other countries in the region, such as Kenya and Uganda, have shown that they can develop societies in which different religions can flourish.

Why did this not happen in Sudan? Primarily because the leaders of Sudan in Khartoum have always been wedded to a rigid Islamist vision of their countryís development, in which every aspect of state and private life is subject to and regulated by Islamic law. There are several examples of successful Muslim-majority countries that have not sought to impose Islam on religious minorities Ė Tunisia, Senegal, Bangladesh and Indonesia are all countries where secular governance and greater religious freedom have contributed substantially to the development of progressive, forward-looking societies.

In Sudanís case, however, a strain of radical Islam based on jihad took root in Khartoum in the mid-1950s and we are still living with the consequences today, not least in the strife-torn region of Darfur. Sudanís case has interesting parallels with Nigeria, which is divided on religious lines between the Muslim north (where sharia law applies) and the Christian south. Occasionally this tension spills over into violence in which hundreds of people are murdered. The expected partition of Sudan will undoubtedly refocus attention on Nigeria and the sustainability of its future as a unitary state.

Often in cases of religious persecution there is no obvious or achievable solution to the problem. However, in Sudan the solution is obvious (at least to most southerners) and it is also achievable. The referendum on secession offers South Sudan a new perspective on the future Ė a future in which southerners will no longer face persecution, marginalization and violence because of their religious beliefs.

The American poet Robert Frost once said "Good fences make good neighbours." This is as true for warring ethnic communities in Sudan as it is for the squabbling farmers Frost was referring to.

Dr. Charles Tannock, MEP, is a British Conservative member of the European Parliament representing London and serves as ECR Group coordinator on the Committee on Foreign Affairs
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