Thursday, January 10, 2008

Persecuted Sudanese Christians desperately bid for asylum in Israel


Reprinted from Ma’ariv, January 1, 2008

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Knesset recently that while he would like to grant asylum to 489 Muslim refugees from Sudan's Darfur region to protect them from genocide, he is inclined to send back some 2,300 refugees from southern Sudan, who are Christians. This would be a mistake. Both Sudanese groups face similar persecution back home, and the Christians, in particular, are natural allies of Israel.

The world’s attention on Darfur, where Sudan’s Islamist government and militias it supports have killed roughly 400,000 Muslim civilians since 2003, has diverted attention from the suffering in Sudan’s non-Muslim south. Between 1953 and 2005, the Khartoum regime killed as many as 3.5 million southerners, who are Christians and practitioners of tribal faiths.

True, in 2005 the Bush administration negotiated a peace agreement between Khartoum and the south. While that pact halted the slaughter of black Sudanese Christians, starvation and disease remain rampant, and conditions have deteriorated through neglect. In Darfur, some 300 nongovernmental organizations serve 1.5 million refugees. The few NGOs that had served 4 million refugees in southern Sudan have by and large either closed or decamped for Darfur.

“People in the south are starving and dying like flies under the trees,” says Simon Deng, an American human-rights activist who recently visited the region, where he was born. Mr. Deng, who was captured and enslaved at age 9, has also spent time with the Sudanese in Israel. “Hundreds of refugees told me, ‘If the Israeli government plans to send us back, we would ask one favor: shoot us here on the spot, rather than send us back to Sudan or Egypt."

Khartoum has not lived up to the terms of the peace agreement. Tens of thousands of Christians remain enslaved in defiance of the pact. John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International, an antislavery group, says at least one of the refugees in Israel is an escaped slave.

Deng notes that his fellow Sudanese Christians have a natural affinity for Israel. “They come from a country that considers Israel an enemy nation, but they are persecuted by that government.” Majier Pap, chairman of the Sudanese Refugees Association in Israel, describes his fellow Sudanese Christians as "Christian Zionists." He adds, “Because Israel is a democratic country, and we in Sudan are victim of fundamentalist Islam, we naturally identify with Israel.”

Deng and Pap both understand that Israel cannot open the floodgates to every persecuted African. But they pray that Jerusalem will not return these refugees to Sudan, a nation that metes out the death penalty for visiting Israel. Deporting them to Egypt, through which they escaped, is not much of an alternative: In December 2005, in front of the United Nations High Commission of Refugees office, Egyptian police bludgeoned to death more than 30 unarmed refugees, including women and children.

The 2005 peace agreement gave some autonomy to southern Sudan, and Sudanese Christians have high hopes of independence in the coming years. Israel can’t take on all the problems of Africa. But with some creative thinking and the stroke of a pen, it can save a few thousand, whose descendants will be counted as friends to the Jewish state.

Heather Robinson is a senior writer for the New York Daily News' Big Town, Big Dreams feature. She is the former managing editor of Town & Village News, a Manhattan weekly newspaper.