Darfur arouses a new unity

Faith, political groups across wide spectrum to protest genocide

April 29, 2006|By MATTHEW HAY BROWN | MATTHEW HAY BROWN,SUN REPORTER

The National Association of Evangelicals and the American Humanist Association might not agree on much. When it comes to abortion or homosexuality, the Union for Reform Judaism and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops find themselves on opposite ends of the debate.

But when the subject is genocide in Darfur, all are on the same page.

In what may be the broadest coalition of faith-based groups ever assembled for a political cause, Jews, Christians and Muslims, liberals and conservatives, evangelicals and atheists are joining with humanitarian and human rights organizations to demand that the U.S. government end the killing in Sudan.

In a movement more diverse than those that backed the abolition of slavery or the struggle for civil rights, tens of thousands of demonstrators - including several busloads from the synagogues and churches of Baltimore - are expected to converge on Washington tomorrow for what organizers are calling the Rally to Stop Genocide.

"I think it's a common understanding of humanity," said the Rev. Richard Cizik of the National Association for Evangelicals. "We should never accept the atrocities that are happening now."

Their efforts are already helping to focus official attention.

In Washington, five members of Congress, including Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of California, who is a Holocaust survivor, were among 11 demonstrators who submitted to arrest yesterday during a rally outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington.

"We must hold the Sudanese government accountable for the attacks they have supported on their own citizens in Darfur," said Rep. John W. Olver, a Massachusetts Democrat.

At the White House, President Bush met with advocates for Darfur.

"The genocide in Sudan is unacceptable," he said. "I want the Sudanese government to understand the United States of America is serious about solving this problem."

Support for the campaign has not been unanimous. But, to many, the diversity of the faith-based groups that have signed on reflects a larger trend - an effort by religious activists who have been divided by the war in Iraq, same-sex marriage and other issues to find ways to work together when possible.

"You see this increasingly on global poverty, you see it on sex trafficking, you see it on the environment," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, the founder of the Washington-based social justice ministry Sojourners. "Religion isn't supposed to be a wedge to divide us, but a bridge to bring us together on the really big issues."

Since 2003, militias backed by the government of Sudan have killed tens of thousands of civilians in the rebellious Darfur region and displaced about 2 million.

Most on both sides are Muslims, but the government is dominated by Arabs, while the victims are mostly black Africans.

About 7,000 African Union troops have been deployed to Sudan as peacekeepers. Activists want the United States to support a stronger multinational force to stop the bloodletting.

"It is the first time that the United States has identified a genocide while it was ongoing," said Ruth W. Messinger, executive director of the American Jewish World Service in New York. "That was the good news. The less good news was that they seemed perfectly comfortable putting it on a to-do list, and not doing very much about it."

Religious organizations have been advocating individually for Darfur since the crisis began more than three years ago. The killing reverberates among the different groups in different ways: Muslims see the persecution of co-religionists; African-Americans remember Rwanda; Jews are reminded of the Holocaust.

The resonance across faiths became clear two years ago when the American Jewish World Service and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington called what was supposed to be an emergency summit of Jewish leaders to mobilize the community to greater action. Word spread, and soon representatives of other religious traditions were calling to invite themselves.

Out of that summit came the Save Darfur Coalition, a group that has swelled to more than 160 organizations, including Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews, Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals, Muslims, Buddhists and others.

There remained more organizing to do. Last fall, leaders called another meeting.

"One of our frustrations was that there was no strategic, overarching plan in terms of our advocacy," said the Rev. Gloria E. White-Hammond, founder of My Sister's Keeper, a human rights organization in Sudan. "While we were obviously on the same page, we were in different paragraphs."

White-Hammond, a pediatrician and pastor from Boston, chairs the Million Voices Campaign. Coalition members have been mobilizing their constituencies to flood the White House with a million e-postcards calling for action, and to attend rallies tomorrow in cities including New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Toronto.

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