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 CNS Story:

DARFUR Dec-6-2006 (680 words) With photo. xxxn

Religious leaders urge weekend of prayer for Darfur

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Religious leaders in the Save Darfur Coalition urged prayer the weekend of Dec. 9-10 to call attention to the ongoing atrocities in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

"Nobody knows the exact number" of those killed in the conflict, said David Rubenstein, executive director of the coalition, although he estimated 400,000 have died in the violence.

"There are people dying every day, and at risk of death every day," Rubenstein said during a Dec. 5 conference call with reporters. "They are being burned from their homes and villages."

"Mostly, what they need is security," said Rubenstein, adding that "3.5 million people in toto have been affected by this conflict, and the systems of survival have shut down."

In a related matter, 78 religious organizations, including five Catholic groups, signed a full-page ad in the Dec. 5 issue of USA Today issuing a "call to your conscience" on Darfur. Catholic signers were the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, Pax Christi USA and the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

"Untold thousands" have been "raped, tortured and terrorized," said the ad, which asked readers to "dedicate a sermon, observe a moment of silence or say a prayer. ... Together, we can make a difference."

Sudan's Darfur region has been beset by grave human rights abuses and other atrocities since February 2003 when fighting escalated between rebel groups and government troops and Janjaweed, or Arab militias. Human rights groups accuse the Janjaweed of waging a terror campaign against black Africans to push them from the land.

Despite a May peace agreement meant to end the conflict, the fighting has continued.

"When the world forgets, God has to be brought to the fray and into play," said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, during the conference call.

Rabbi Gutow added the "first step" toward establishing peace is bringing in "25,000 blue-helmeted United Nations forces" to Darfur, noting the Sudanese government has hinted it would not object to a U.N. presence.

The Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former six-term congressman, echoed Rabbi Gutow's call.

"An interim force should act now, and a long-term force should come as quickly as possible," he said. "The people of Darfur need protection and they need a long-term commitment as soon as possible."

It is "a great loss that Muslims have been killed by Muslims" and a "greater loss that they use Islam, religion, as a reason for that," said Sheik Fadhel Al-Sahlani, the official U.S. representative of Iraq's leading Shiite religious authority, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and spiritual leader of the Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Queens, N.Y. He added that the situation in Darfur mirrors that in Iraq.

"In Darfur, unfortunately Muslims killing Muslims in the name of Islam hurts every human being and hurts Muslims," Sheik Al-Sahlani said.

Citing the Armenian genocide at the hands of Turkey in 1915, the Nazi Holocaust of Jews during World War II, the systematic depopulation of Cambodia by its rulers in the 1970s and the Rwandan massacres of 1994, Rev. Edgar said "no Western nation ever used the term 'genocide'" to describe them. While Congress termed the Darfur atrocities a genocide in 2004, with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell following suit, the violence against black Africans in southern Sudan by the Arab-led government and government-backed militias has continued.

If churchgoers "knew all of the facts of what was happening in Darfur, they would rise up urgently to stop the genocide," Rev. Edgar said. "Often Darfur is not on the front page of the newspapers."

While hesitant to describe Darfur as a civil war, Rubenstein, who visited Darfur earlier this year, said, "The only people who don't have weapons are the civilians who are being slaughtered by their own government's agents, the Janjaweed," who "use rape as a tool of war" and "burning and mutilation as a tool to move them."


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