By Douglas Johnston
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. 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.
In moving toward a Sudan where the majority develops an enlightened view of its own self-interest as being tied to the common interest, where granting rights to minorities is seen as strengthening the rights of everyone, where discrimination is prohibited, and where there is equal access to government authority, services and employment, the Khartoum International Forum for Inter-Religious Cooperation and Peace recommends the following:
- Involve religious leaders in the peace process.
- Urge the international community to work with renewed commitment toward a peaceful resolution of the Sudanese conflict.
- Establish an independent Inter-Religious Council to address religious issues and make related recommendations to the relevant authorities and entities. Among other initiatives the Council should consider are:
- Facilitating inter-religious workshops in each state of the Sudan that bring religious communities together to facilitate a common understanding of the issues confronting their constituents and to work toward solutions that accommodate diverse religious views.
- Establishing courses on comparative religion and inter-religious dialogue at the college and university level.
- Establishing a university exchange program for Muslim and Christian college students.
- Establishing Muslim-Christian camp experiences for teenage youth to inspire lasting friendships across religious lines.
Once a lasting peace is established, Sudan has the potential to become a model to the world — a model that combines the best of both the Arab and African cultures — a model in which diversity is celebrated and an elevated sense of brotherhood prevails. This potential derives from:
- the country’s abundant natural resources
- the natural inclusiveness of its culture
- the profound spiritual heritage of the Nile Valley
- Sudan’s expanding concept of an Islamic state (in which important progress toward non-discrimination and civil rights is being achieved).
The most important piece in this mosaic, of course, is peace itself, the immediate goal to which this forum is irreversibly committed.
The Khartoum International Forum was co-sponsored by:
- The International Center for Religion and Diplomacy
- The Council for International Peoples Friendship
- The Sudan Council of Churches
List of Participants
Dr. Douglas Johnston
President, International Center for Religion and Diplomacy
Dr. Abdul-Rahim Ali M. Ibrahim
Director, Inter-Religious Dialogue Society
Mr. Juma Kunda
Executive Committee, Sudan Council of Churches
Sudan Muslim Participants
Sheikh Abdul Mahmoud Abbo Imam of Ansar Mosque
Shaykh Hasan al-Fatih Qaribullah
Muhammed Osman al-Khalifa
Former Minister for Social Planning
Dr. Yusef Al-Khalife
H.E. Ahmed Abd al-Rahman
Secretary General, International People’s Friendship Council
Dr. Bashir el-Bakri
President, United Nations Association in Sudan
Dr. Ahmed el-Mufti
Rapporteur, Advisory Council for Human Rights
Mr. Khalaf Allah el-Rasheed
Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
Dr. Oun Elsharief Gasim
Former Minister of Religious Affairs
Dr. Yusef Fadl Hassan
Dr. Zakaria Bashir Imam
Vice Chancellor, University of Juba
Father Joseph Ngwasu
Secretary General, Catholic Bishops Conference
Professor Mohammed Osman Salih
Director, International Centre for Sudan Scholars
Sudan Christian Participants
Reverend Samuel Ador
Executive Secretary of Church and Ecumenical Relations, SCC
Mr. Abednego Akok
Inter-Religious Dialogue Society
His Eminence Saraf Amun
Coptic Bishop of Omdurman
Mr. Deng Awur
Head of the Faculty of Law, University of Juba
Reverend Filotheos Farag
Proto-Priest, El Shahidein Coptic Church
Dr. Priscilla Joseph Kuc
Inter-Religious Dialogue Society
Reverend Ezekiel Kutjok
Vice Moderator, Presbyterian Church of the Sudan
Gabriel Matur Malek
Member of the Anglican electorate
Right Reverend Gabriel Roric Jur
Episcopal Bishop of Rumbek Diocese
Reverend Enock Tombe Stephen
General Secretary, Sudan Council of Churches
Mr. Malek M. Thier
Chancellor, Episcopal Province Church of Sudan
His Excellency Kamil al-Sharif
Secretary General, International Council for Da’wa and Relief
Reverend Klaus Brinkmann
Director, Wiedenest Mission and Theological College, Germany
Right Reverend Frank Cerveny
Former Episcopal Bishop of Florida
Secretary General, World Peace Summit
His Eminence Seraphim
Orthodox Archbishop of Kenya
Dr. Mohammed Ail Taskhiri
Director, Iran Institute for Civilizational Dialogue
Sir al-Khatim al-Khalifa
Former Prime Minister
Abdalla Ahmed Abdalla
Former Governor of the Northern Region Former Ambassador to the United States
Dafalla al-Haj Yusef
Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; Former Minister of Education
Mr. Abel Alier
Former Vice President of Sudan; Former President of the High Executive Council of the Southern Region
Dr. Ibrahim Ahmed Omer
Secretary General, National Congress Party; Former Assistant President of Sudan
Dr. Hassan al-Turabi
Secretary General, Peoples’ National Congress; Former Speaker of Parliament
Archbishop Marco Dino Brogi
Apostolic Nuncio to the Sudan
The Honorable Jon Christensen
Former U.S. Congressman
Lord Duncan McNair
British House of Lords
Reverend Brian Cox
Vice President for Dispute Resolution Training, International Center for Religion & Diplomacy
Professor John Cochran
Reverend David Moore
Pastor, Church of God in Christ
Dr. Abubaker al-Shingieti
Sr. Associate, International Center for Religion & Diplomacy
Reverend Adi Severino Ambrose
Deputy Chairman, Parliamentary Committee