American Christians Should Stop Hurting Sudanese Christians With Sanctions

KHARTOUM, SUDAN—Ubiquitous American advertising is absent in Sudan. Washington bans most imports and exports to the country. Among the strongest supporters of economic coercion have been American Christians, seeking to punish the Muslim-dominated central government for its brutal conduct in past ethnic conflicts.

While the combat has largely ceased, the embargo remains. And Sudanese Christians with whom I recently spoke said that they suffer when Washington penalizes the Sudanese people for Khartoum’s sins. Rev. Filotheos Farag of Khartoum’s El Shahidein Coptic Church, explained “we want to cancel all the sanctions.”

The Clinton administration first imposed restrictions two decades ago for Sudan’s alleged sponsorship of terrorism. But the Obama administration admits that Khartoum cooperates with the United States today.

Penalties were later strengthened to punish Sudan for its tactics in the civil war in Sudan’s south and subsequent fighting around Darfur. But the first was resolved with the independence of South Sudan, which itself has tragically descended into its own civil war. And the large-scale killings at Darfur also have ended. While some fighting continues elsewhere, it is no worse than many other Third World countries.

Khartoum also is criticized for religious repression, but American allies such as Saudi Arabia are worse. Moreover, Sudanese Christians say they are among those most hurt by sanctions.

I visited a number of churches of different denominations which appeared to operate freely. A consistent message from Christian clerics is that they suffer disproportionately from U.S. sanctions.

Farag said, “Everybody here is affected. From America, we stopped importing necessities we need.” Moreover, “Many businesses here are closed. Taxation is much higher.” In his view “the government is not punished. If officials ask about anything, they can bring it from outside. But we can’t.”

Isaiah Kanani of the Presbyterian Nile Theological College reported that “sanctions are affecting everyone in the community in every corner of the country.” Unfortunately, “the grassroots feel it very harshly.” He pointed to lost jobs and people relocating for work. Moreover, while people believe the government is not responsible for these problems, their “eyes fix on the government to find a solution.”

Hafiz Fassha, an Evangelical Presbyterian pastor at the Evangelical Church of Khartoum North, said the harm is felt in “medical services, even education.” He prays for the lifting of controls, which “are like putting oil on a fire.”

Sanctions “make life very difficult for Christians and their jobs,” reported George Banna, the Patriarchal Vicar in the Greek Melkite Catholic Patriarchate, who heads the Oriental Catholic church. A number of his parishioners are in businesses or professions and “they find difficulties importing what they need.” Over the years “many have left the country for financial reasons.”

As for the church, “we depend on donations. If members don’t work, they don’t have anything to give.” He suffered from prostate cancer and had to go abroad for treatment. “We all oppose sanctions,” he said.

I spoke with two Catholic priests in Port Sudan, E. Luigi Cignolini and Antonio Manganhe Meej. Cignolini said because of the sanctions “we don’t get offerings. Even Europe can’t send them. Of course this hampers our work.”

Meej emphasized that “Poor people feel it more.” When they aren’t able to pay their school fees “it is becoming impossible to run these schools.” In school, he said, they have trouble getting the latest information and can’t upgrade computer programs. “While the U.S. might believe it is punishing the government,” it is “only punishing the people.”

As I point out in Forbes: “There was and remains much about which to criticize Sudan’s government. However, U.S. sanctions have lost any purpose they once may have had.”

Most important for American Christians, the sanctions hurt believers already living and worshipping in difficult circumstances. Fassha said, “We love America. We need America to help Sudan.”

The world has changed since sanctions were first imposed. Washington’s policy toward Sudan should change as well.