Home > Archives > 11 - 2003 > Fundamentalisms are destructive
from issue no. 11 - 2003

AFRICA. Gabriel Zubeir Wako, the first Cardinal of the Sudanese Church speaks

Fundamentalisms are destructive

An interview with the Archbishop of Khartoum: "In our country there is no clash between Christianity and Islam understood as religions, but if Christianity and Islam are used for political goals… they are destructive"

by Giovanni Cubeddu

New Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako

New Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako

Created Cardinal at the last Consistory, Gabriel Zubeir Wako has been Archbishop of Khartoum since October 1981. He is the first Cardinal the Sudanese Catholic Church has had up to date, and he is the cordial homage that the Pope decided to pay to the witness of a community of believers tried by difficulties. Since 1983 the country has been going through a war between Moslem north and Animist and Christian south that has caused chaos, famine and around two million victims. And that now, thanks to international commitment with strong American support (also economic), it could end. In October Colin Powell himself took part in a day of negotiations between the government and southerners of the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) that have been going on in Kenya since July 2002.
We met the new Sudanese Cardinal in the Combonian General Curia in Rome.

When you were elected Cardinal, did you wonder what it would mean for the Sudan?
GABRIEL ZUBEIR WAKO: I didn’t expect the nomination, but I thought that for many reasons it would have been in the Pope’s plans to have a Cardinal for the Sudan, keeping in mind the difficulties that we are going through. Already when he came to Sudan, ten years ago, he said he saw us as men and women on Calvary… The many letters of greetings that I’ve received from the Sudan after my nomination have reminded me even more how the Church of the Sudan has been abandoned since Comboni’s day, and generally so little is known about it. Perhaps the nomination of a Cardinal is useful: for the Church to be held in consideration a little more by the outside world, and so our people know just how close it is to the heart of its pastors and how they try to keep the Christian faith alive, amid the difficulties.
Unfortunately the same day on which I was created Cardinal I noticed in Rome that the Archdiocese of Khartoum is little known even at the levels of the Church’s information services… That is why our Christians greeted the nomination of a Cardinal to Khartoum by thanking the Pope for having given them a sign of recognition, of having paid homage to their witness and having comforted them.
Let us talk about the war in Sudan. Colin Powell himself took part in the talks between the government and the SPLA, that seem to have reached a decisive moment. Can the Church ask or do anything?
ZUBEIR WAKO: It’s difficult to say what can be done now. One has to recognize that, despite the fact that there are two Catholic Archbishops in Sudan, we haven’t been able to get our position understood. The government has always believed that the Church wishes to oppose it, that it’s hostile to it, and President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, in an interview in July, clearly reminded me. We instead have already drawn up documents, and we’ve sent them to the government, expressing our backing for the peace talks and the actions of the government, asking at the same time that a peace that really is a peace should involve the people. Speaking about peace with people results in everybody wanting it more and appreciating it better. After so many years of anger and hostility between the sides, a political declaration between the government and the SPLA won’t automatically be a real reconciliation … The Sudanese Church is only trying to get that understood.
And then there is the problem of the return of all the refugees to their homes, if peace comes indeed. In the diocese of Khartoum there are almost two million refugees who, if they return to the south or to the Nuba mountains, will restart their own life with more responsibility, without depending on eventual humanitarian aid. Here, too, the Church wants to help, because it has understood that when formal peace is declared everybody will be told to return home immediately, and there won’t be much concern about whether the refugee who left a house will find it again or one whether the services essential for the daily life of the population exist.
Children in prayer in the village of Acumcum, in southern Sudan;

Children in prayer in the village of Acumcum, in southern Sudan;

You fear the peace will be unstable.
ZUBEIR WAKO: Who can assure us that the peace will hold? There are still so many armed groups around, and if one looks only at the clash between government and SPLA soldiers one’s making a mistake, because then nobody will be able to stop these other military formations. We ask that the policy against arms be serious and for everybody, given that weapons have been raining down: on those fighting for Garang as on whoever supported the government. But first of all, the law must be enforced. During the war there have been countless breaches of the law for security reasons and we ask that the reason for such sufferings, the inequality, come to an end: that the law be applied equally to all citizens!
The Sudan is by definition a place of contrasts between Christianity and Islam. Is that the real cause of the war?
ZUBEIR WAKO: At the beginning of the war there was no fundamentalism, we have to be clear on that. Even if some Moslems shared the intention of turning the Sudan into an Islamic country – and in the past governments have tried to achieve the goal through military force. The principal question was, and is, that the people of the south felt oppressed. They didn’t have the opportunity to administer their own lives, which seemed ordered from elsewhere, from Khartoum, and they didn’t have any voice in the management of the natural resources of which the south is full. «At least something of the wealth», they say, « could be invested for our welfare». Already in colonial times the south was an abandoned area, lacking the development from which the north benefited.
It was for reasons of justice and equality among citizens of the same state that the war started, that is the real reason. Since then, however, the government has undertaken the islamization of the country for instrumental reasons, there has been violence done to missionaries and to Christians in general, the imposition of the Arabic language in the national educational system… The people of the south have nothing against the Arabic language, but they feel it is a form of pressure on persons who already have their own language. And that reminds them of when the relations with the Arabic world unfortunately was characterized by the slave trade, up to last century…
By so doing the Khartoum government has in fact slowly opened the way to fundamentalism, thus unfortunately adding a factor to the continuation of the war.
Guerrillas of the SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army)

Guerrillas of the SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army)

And the oil?
ZUBEIR WAKO: The problem of oil came up after the war had started. The existence of deposits in the south was already known, but the people of the south didn’t perceive the importance because exploitation had not fully begun, as it has now. The percentage of the relative earnings destined to the south is miserly… The theme of the clash between Christianity and Islam can very well be put aside and resolved, but the people of the south will continue to protest if an equitable distribution of resources is not arrived at. One war will finish and another will start. That unfortunately is the reality of things.
Some time ago the United States sent one of their diplomats to Sudan as negotiator. Did he have contacts with the Catholic Church, in a collaborative atmosphere?
ZUBEIR WAKO: I don’t think that he spoke much with us. There are contacts with the president of our Episcopal Conference and with the Council of the Christian Churches, to which the Catholic Church also belongs. But the Americans have their agenda, and it’s not obvious that they listen to us when we speak, they are things to which they don’t pay much attention: now for them there’s only stopping the war.
The bishops of the Sudan have for some time been deploring the lack of justice, of respect, of equality among the citizens, of human rights, of dignity. We have repeated it many times in pastoral letters. Islam can commit these violations only if there are those who instrumentalize it, so as to oppress whoever is non-Moslem, to impose customs that are not their own. We combat this imposition. There is no clash between Christianity and Islam understood as religions, but if Christianity and Islam are used for political goals… they are destructive. The political leaders want the backing of the religious so as to impose their opinion. That is what the Sudanese Church is talking about. There are those from Europe who want to teach us how to dialogue between religions, but that is not our problem. We are asking for equality.
A few weeks ago Hassan al-Tourabi was freed from prison, first a fundamentalist ally and then an opponent of al-Bashir. Is it a gesture from the government aimed at national pacification, even with the hard-line Moslem factions?
ZUBEIR WAKO: We don’t know. But for a long time the human rights organizations in Sudan and abroad have been asking the regime to release him, because he was imprisoned without clear evidence, and the government could not continue to ignore such pressures. A peace-seeking intention also obviously exists, directed at the Islamic dissidents in the north of the country. The result would be the resolidification of the Islamic front, useful for getting a solid majority in a parliamentary system. Thus the people of the south would have less chance.
Moslems in prayer in the mosque of Omdurman in Sudan

Moslems in prayer in the mosque of Omdurman in Sudan

Is the Church of Sudan favorable to the secession of the south?
ZUBEIR WAKO: The Church of Sudan has taken no stance on the issue of the partitioning of the country. We have only said that the moment has come for the citizens of the south to have, like everybody, the right to self-determination. It’s up to them to say what they want to do with it, we bishops don’t want to use our position to impose a policy. The citizens have this right, let them use it as they see fit.
Years ago many of us agreed, including the Churches of the Sudan, to say that when the war was over there would be need of a period of transition, in which the people, especially those of the south, would be able to pause and think what it really meant to remain united or whether to split the south from the north. Because it’s something that isn’t known, and we can’t go to the urns in a possible referendum on secession on the basis of feelings. The bishops of Sudan don’t speak about partition, but of enlightened self-determination.
Have the Christians and bishops of the Sudan ever felt instrumentalized by those who describe them, for various and particular power goals, as a martyr Church?
ZUBEIR WAKO:Instrumentalized? Yes. We’ve noticed that many of those who show an interest in the Church of the Sudan at least are not serious and, worse, that they don’t want to take account of what we propose. And, that is, that if we offer criticism of Islam it is only when it is used as a tool of power that takes no account of people’s fate. We are making every effort so that Sudanese Christian can be Christians and citizens, and respected as such.
Of course it happens in Christian countries also that the Church interferes in political affairs and provokes an opposite reaction in bishops and believers themselves.
We never use the word “secular” to describe our demands, as you do in Europe. We know that whoever is in government expresses his own religion in his way of thinking and acting, but must take account of the fact that what he professes is not shared by others. Therefore it is up to politicians to see to it that, while all the present religions in a country co-exist and work together for the common good, it is possible for anyone to declare himself to be Christian, Moslem… or communist. Everybody can work together, each in his own diversity, and in Sudan, where there are so many languages and cultures, it is essential that that be guaranteed.
A wise government is one that gets everybody to live together and gets everybody to realize they’re a nation.
On the issue of the obligation the government has imposed to study Arabic…
ZUBEIR WAKO: It’s a necessity for us to use Arabic, because it’s the only way in which a great many people can understand us, otherwise we pastors would have to learn dozens of dialects… It’s the way we let the Islamics know the elements of our Christian faith, and we engage in dialogue. For now it’s all right to speak Arabic. And then many people, also Christians, from the many different tribes that have fled to the north, don’t have any other language for understanding one another other than the Arabic imposed by the government. Even they don’t have deep knowledge of it, and we pastors also use it in simplified and more accessible manner. When the peace comes and the possibility for many of returning home, they’ll all begin speaking mostly in their own tongue.
Every year at Easter there are thousands of people baptized in your diocese. Can you describe some features of the Sudanese Church?
ZUBEIR WAKO: Our interest is evangelization and constant Christian training, at all levels of the Church: it is the theme at the center of our second diocesan Synod, ongoing now. That may be perhaps why the number of the catechumens is so high, we take great care of them as we do of the training of catechists and of the different groups of the faithful, that are the life of the Church. After the death of Saint Daniele Comboni, the Church in Sudan has continued his program of “saving Africa with Africa”, a program in which education and training has a notable part, and that sincerely occupies us a great deal in Khartoum. We have seventy schools for primary education, with 42,000 pupils, and looking after them means a lot of work for the pastors and above all for the laity, without whom all that would be impossible.
Colin Powell with the Kenya Foreign Minister Kolonzo Musyuka, the leader of the SPLA John Garang and the Vice-president of the Sudan Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, Nairobi 22 October 2003

Colin Powell with the Kenya Foreign Minister Kolonzo Musyuka, the leader of the SPLA John Garang and the Vice-president of the Sudan Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, Nairobi 22 October 2003

Looking at the numbers of churchmen it looks as if the Sudanese Church no longer relies on the missionaries in everything…
ZUBEIR WAKO: The missionaries are few, and also old. Of the thirty parishes in my diocese, only six are run by missionaries, the rest by Sudanese priests, and finding a Sudanese Christian identity is a part of the daily work of our Church. The call of Comboni to have more men in the Church and more Christianly trained would not have been concrete if, at the moment when the missionaries were driven out of the country, the laity had not carried the Church forward. We look at the lay Christians with trust, and so, on the day after the thanksgiving for the canonization of Comboni, I asked whether we could be helped to build a Catholic university in Khartoum named after Comboni, where many of our pupils, from the schools in the south also, could one day enrol. Often Christians don’t contribute to civic life, in politics and in the economy they are counted with others, and it happens that faced with obstacles they come to ask help from their priests or bishops, and that isn’t their job. The laity must instead stand on its own feet. There’s been talk for years of this university, we also had the support of the Pope, but the political situation hasn’t helped us and the plan was shelved. Now that peace is perhaps approaching, it’s the moment to make an effort. And it’s clear that Comboni University will be open and useful to Christians and Moslems…
Was the new cardinal of Khartoum born in a Catholic family?
ZUBEIR WAKO: Yes, mother and father were Catholics, from their childhood.
And your vocation?
ZUBEIR WAKO: I was eight years old when I began to say I wanted to be priest, and according to the custom of the time, at ten, after primary school, I entered the junior seminary. At that time there weren’t many possibilities of getting an education, and nobody in my family opposed my wish to enter the seminary. If anything they thought that when I was older, I would reconsider. Thanks be to God it didn’t happen. My Father encouraged me, saying: «Go ahead if you want, otherwise… don’t stay in the seminary, you can come back home to us. Better to turn back than become a bad priest, a depressed priest».
Which episode in the life of the Church since then do you mostly remember?
ZUBEIR WAKO: The Marian year of 1954, solemnly celebrated in our diocese, because the bishop was very devoted to Our Lady Help of Christians. It was a big procession of all the people, from the villages to Wau. There were the students from the Catholic schools along with their teachers, and us seminarians; we walked up to the cathedral, and we prayed together. We were more than a thousand students, and the bishop was there in the cathedral expecting us. On that occasion also some Moslems showed their hostility, because the moment we were in the city, a teacher who was leading his school group was grabbed and hurt, almost tortured, in front of his pupils. They attacked him for his faith. And on the first day of prayer afterwards, his testimony was listened to like that of a martyr.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português