In April 2005, a striking celebration occurred in Washington to mark the signing of a peace accord between rebel groups of southern Sudan and the Islamist regime in Khartoum, ending Africa's longest and bloodiest civil war. In a packed room in the Longworth House Office Building, Sudanese exiles mingled with the American officials and religious leaders whose efforts helped halt Sudan's two-decade genocidal war against its non-Muslim population.
The event marked a triumph for both the Bush administration and the faith-based human-rights movement that has burst on the American foreign-policy scene in recent years. But the triumph was muted, for the Sudanese government in Khartoum has now turned its attention from the southern part of the country to the western, undertaking massive ethnic cleansing in the region known as Darfur. And so far, neither America's religious community nor its government has acted with the same vigor in addressing the crisis.
Indeed, the administration's mixed signals, alternately condemning and lauding the regime, have done little to rein in the Janjaweed marauders who keep the Darfur people from leaving fetid camps to plant crops and rebuild their shattered villages. And one reason the administration has not acted more forcefully is that the potent Christian groups involved in foreign affairs--those who anchored the religious coalition that compelled results in southern Sudan with unity and toughness--have been fragmented in their response to Darfur. This fact tarnishes the achievement in the south, and the stain will fall most heavily on the evangelical world. Born-again Christians in America, it will be said, care more about the deaths of their fellow believers in the south than about the deaths of Muslims in the west.
Given its special access to the White House and its grassroots muscle, the evangelical community remains uniquely situated to mobilize against what President Bush himself has described as "genocide in Darfur." As one insider explained, "If evangelicals are not prioritizing it, then the administration will not prioritize it." But the nation's evangelicals should prioritize it. Even without sending American troops to the region, forceful and moral options remain. The administration can stop sending mixed messages, mount a determined effort to expand and empower African Union forces, add U.S. logistical support, secure more aid, and massively increase diplomatic and economic pressure.
And to make all this happen-to halt the rape and murder of Darfur--the vital element is action from the American religious community.
Initially animated by concern for the persecution of Christians around the world, American religious activism blossomed into a wider quest to promote human rights through the machinery of American foreign policy. From the mid-1990s on, this faith-based movement of unlikely allies--from liberal Jewish groups to conservative evangelical churches--successfully pressed a succession of congressional initiatives, pouring new energy into a cause often trumped by economic and strategic calculations.
This activism was rooted in the tectonic shift of the world's Christian population to the developing world, where it often exists in poverty, violence, exploitation, and persecution. Through the expansion of global communication and booming religious networks, American Christians, especially evangelicals, filled a huge void in human-rights advocacy, raising issues previously slighted by secular groups, the mainstream press, and the foreign-policy establishment.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the campaign to end the civil war in southern Sudan. In a certain way, it was natural for American Christians to identify with the African people of Sudan, where Christianity traces its roots from the first centuries of the early Church. The northern part of the country, which contains the capital of Khartoum, is home to an Arabic-speaking Muslim population. The south and the Nuba mountains are populated by various African peoples, mostly a mix of Christians and traditional animist practitioners. The western province of Darfur represents another tradition, that of African tribes who adhere to the distinctive Sufi version of Islam.
The country has seen more than its share of bloody conflicts, but the worst in recent years arose from Islamist militancy, brought to Sudan by students in the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s. Represented by the National Islamic Front, the movement was never popular with the majority of Sudanese Muslims, but it gained influence through tight organization, intimidation, and violence. Despotic but vulnerable regimes found it convenient to accede to militant demands for the implementation of strict shari'a as a way to buy support.
In the wake of the Iranian revolution, such demands intensified, leading the Khartoum government to promulgate a radical series of shari'a laws in 1983. Non-Muslims in the south rebelled, coalescing in several groups, the most prominent being the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). Hopes for settlement were raised in 1989 when a newly elected government was scheduled to grant greater autonomy to the south. Those hopes were dashed when General Umar al-Bashir seized power in a coup, forging an alliance with the National Islamic Front to unite the country under the Islamist banner.
Though the world hardly noticed, this regime joined Iran and later Afghanistan as the only countries to rule by the Islamist vision. As Arab human-rights activist Hamouda Fathelrahman Bella notes, this coup "brought a regime unparalleled in modern Sudanese history," a harsh and "reactionary religious state in a multireligious, multiracial, and multilingual country." Public floggings and amputations came to Khartoum's stadium; women's freedom was severely curtailed; independent sectors of society were crushed; and thousands of people suspected of insufficient loyalty were detained, many tortured or executed.
The regime's attempt to Islamicize an unwilling people was especially brutal. Viewing the southerners as infidels, the regime issued a fatwa in 1993 declaring a jihad against non-Muslims and justifying mass killing or enslavement as means of bringing the region into the dar al-Islam (the "realm of Islam"). As Bella reports, the fatwa also classified Muslims who doubted the "Islamic justification of jihad" as hypocrites and apostates, which later rationalized the regime's onslaught in Darfur.
By employing scorched-earth policies that manufactured famine and then denying United Nations relief access, the regime decimated the southern population. Over its twenty-year span, the conflict claimed perhaps two million African lives--more fatalities than the conflicts in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Rwanda put together--and displaced some four million people. Beyond targeting animists and Muslims in the south who resisted its fundamentalism, the regime literally attempted to wipe out Christianity. For a long while this genocidal dimension was scarcely noted by the press, but it was picked up in western religious circles, especially among Christian solidarity activists who mounted a campaign like the anti-apartheid struggle, complete with grassroots mobilization, protests, arrests, divestment pressure, and legislative sanctions.
That such a domestic movement could shape the destiny of a people far from home illustrates the remarkable clout of aroused religious constituencies and suggests their potential impact on Darfur. The plight of the southern Sudanese would have remained in the backwater of American concern had not the faith-based movement and its allies picked up the cause. Consider the case of John Eibner, an American leader of the...