From November 12-16, 2000, a meeting of prominent Sudanese and international religious leaders and scholars was convened in Khartoum to address (1) the religious aspects of Sudan’s long-running conflict and (2) those religious issues that are contributing to social tensions more generally.
By Douglas Johnston
The meeting/Forum was co-sponsored by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD), the Sudan-based Council for International People’s Friendship (CIPF), and the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC).
Although the government’s role in this affair was confined to explaining official policy on an as-needed basis, the government agreed to host the meeting as a sign of its intent to make Sudanese society more inclusive and egalitarian in its treatment of all its citizens. Toward this end, the Forum produced seventeen recommendations, which are listed in Attachment 1.
Securing Christian participation in the meeting was a major challenge owing to their past experience with inter-religious dialogue conferences (held in 1991, 1993, and 1994) in which much was said and very little was done. Extrapolating from this past, they had three principal concerns: that their views would not be heard, that nothing useful would come of it, and that it would produce major PR benefits for the government at their expense.
These concerns were largely (but not totally) allayed by assurances that (1) the purpose of this meeting was to develop specific action recommendations (meaning that it would therefore be smaller in size and practically focused), (2) Christian concerns would, in fact, be heard (because of the SCC’s prospective leadership role in the meeting), and (3) the meeting would be off-limits to the media.
To produce recommendations that could lead to meaningful change, a staged approach was adopted, in which a list of the specific issues to be addressed was developed and agreed to by the relevant parties in advance of the meeting. Qualified scholars were then engaged to prepare papers on over-arching themes, which taken collectively encompassed all of the listed issues.
The prescribed format for each session called for an assigned author to briefly distill the essence of his findings, after which a discussant provided an alternative point of view (e.g. the Christian perspective if an Islamic scholar had presented and vice versa). This was then followed by extensive discussion and debate. At the end of the session, draft recommendations on each of the pre-listed issues that had been addressed during the deliberations were passed to the participants (sample at Attachment 2). They were then invited to consider these at their leisure, with an eye toward suggesting improvements and/or offering better ideas on the final day of the Forum. Additional recommendations on other unanticipated issues that arose during the dialogue were also addressed on the final day.
Each session was chaired by a figure of significant stature (to lend added weight to the occasion) and co-moderated by designated representatives from the ICRD, the CIPF, and the SCC. All participants who took part did so in their religious or scholarly capacities, even though a number of them wear other hats. (In Islam, religious scholars often have as much, if not more, influence on religious matters than do some religious leaders; in many instances, they are one and the same). One such example of a participant with multiple responsibilities was Dr. Abdul-Rahim Ali M. Ibrahim, who in addition to being a renown Islamic scholar and a prominent figure in inter-religious dialogue, chairs the Shura Council (the governing body of the ruling party). Government officials participated in those sessions where their respective areas of responsibility were being discussed, both to provide the government’s perspective on existing policies and procedures and to hear first-hand what the problems are.
Each evening, a prominent Sudanese political figure addressed the participants (and an expanded audience) on a topic related to the substantive agenda for that day. These included presentations by Abel Alier on “Religious Tolerance and Co-existence in a Multi-ethnic Society”, by Dr. Hasan al-Turabi on “Shari’a, Democracy, and Human Rights”, and by Dr. Ibrahim Ahmed Omer on “Non-Muslims and the Shari’a”.
As alluded to earlier, the goal with respect to participation was to keep the size of the group to manageable proportions, with an equal split between Sudanese Muslims, Sudanese Christians, and international attendees. Happily, the goal was met, with about 30 participants more or less equally divided between the three categories (see Attachment 3). In addition, several others also attended as special guests, including the Apostolic Nuncio to the Sudan, a former U.S. Congressman, a former member of the British House of Lords, and an American businessman. Repeated attempts to secure the participation of an English-speaking African Traditionalist proved unsuccessful. Accordingly, one of the Southern participants familiar with that perspective provided input on a surrogate basis in the course of the daily deliberations.
Finally, a small group from California under the leadership of Rev. Brian Cox, the ICRD’s Vice President for Dispute Resolution Training, attended and prayed throughout for the meeting’s success. They were joined in this effort by a small group of like-minded Sudanese. In addition, each morning prior to the first session of the day, the international guests participated in a small prayer breakfast at their hotel with a few local Muslim and Christian leaders. Finally, the daily meetings began with readings from the Bible and the Qur’an. Collectively, these activities inspired the proceedings and gave credence to the concept of faith-based diplomacy.
The quality of the dialogue was unusually rich, both in its candor and in the thoughtfulness of the exchanges that transpired. Local Christian leaders expressed the view that it was the first time they had been heard; an Islamic scholar, who also serves as an imam, commented that he had never before heard of some of the problems that were discussed; and an elder statesman (also Islamic) stated categorically that this was the first time in history that Northerners and Southerners had spoken to one another from the heart.
In short, it was an excellent beginning, but only a beginning. The need now is for quick action to support the recommendations. Toward this end, Dr. Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, the First Vice President of Sudan (and second in command), has endorsed the quality of the effort and is reviewing the recommendations with an eye toward early implementation. Further, a report on the meeting and its results was forwarded to the IGAD (The Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) is the consortium of East African countries officially charged with mediating the conflict) Summit, which took place in Khartoum the following week. For some time now, religious issues have contributed to a stalemate in the IGAD’s deliberations. The hope behind this initiative was to complement that body’s efforts by engaging religious experts to deal with the religious issues and thereby free up the IGAD to achieve closure on other fronts. An immediate consequence of this input was the Summit’s agreement in principle to act on several recommendations on a regional basis, including the establishment of an international human rights center in Sudan.
The International Center for Religion & Diplomacy is committed to assisting in every way it can with the continuation of the dialogue and the implementation of the Forum’s recommendations.