As predominantly Christian and animist South Sudan stands on the threshold of independence, one man who helped bring world attention to the suffering of believers there is no longer here to savour the day.
On Feb. 10, 1993, Pope John Paul made a tense visit to Khartoum and pulled no punches in a highly charged meeting with the country’s president, General Omar Hassan Ahmed al Bashir. In his meeting, the outspoken pope left diplomacy at the door, as was often his custom when he wanted to speak from the heart. He bluntly compared the suffering of Sudan’s Catholics to the crucifixion of Christ and told the Islamic government that only guaranteeing the rights of Christians and other minorities would bring peace.
The year before, the Vatican had made a formal public protest about the treatment of the Church in the south, where civil war had raged between government forces and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Front (SPLA). The Vatican had accused the government of discrimination in education, harassment of priests and closing Catholic organisations since promulgating Islamic law (sharia) in 1991.
The atmosphere was so tense between the Vatican delegation and the Sudanese officials during the one-day stop in Khartoum in 1993 that more than a few reporters accompanying the pope feared that something could happen. At a papal mass on a dusty field outside the capital, soldiers in uniform and well as men in plainclothes who were apparently members of militias waved machine guns in the air right in front of the altar. It was one of the tensest moments in my more that 20 years of travels with the late pope.