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North America's Guilt Industry

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December 19, 2007

North America's Guilt Industry

Sudanese Slavery and the Christian Right

by Jay Heisler

A rusted tank outside of a village in Southern Sudan. Sudan's small rural villages were often victims of human rights abuses committed by pro- and anti-government forces during the country's civil war. Photo: Jay Heisler

"It's all about money. They're exploiting people's guilt and they're making a fortune."

Dan Eiffe, manager of the Sudan Mirror, has been involved in Southern Sudan for decades. Through his work with the Mirror, an English-language paper based in Nairobi, as well as numerous other NGOs and aid organizations, Eiffe has become a well-known voice in Sudan and the international community. A former Irish Catholic priest, Eiffe is especially critical of efforts by fundamentalist Christians from Europe and the United States to stop the slave trade in Sudan.

Slavery, though a scourge in the area since long before Sudan became a nation-state, resurfaced as a serious issue in the 1980s. It became clear that soldiers and militias backed by Sudan's Northern Khartoum government were capturing women and children from Dinka villages and selling them into domestic servitude. In addition to being a source of profit, this practice served as a weapon of terror against civilian populations, in the same vein as mass rape and scorched-earth campaigns. To this day, Khartoum will only admit to "abductions."

When the international community learned about the resurgence of the slave trade in Sudan, there was uproar in Western countries. For the first time, Republican Christians like Kenneth Star and African-American activists like Louis Farrakhan had found a cause they could agree upon. However, in their ostensible efforts to free the exploited, many religious organizations ended up practising a different sort of exploitation.

Eiffe explains that there are many legitimate faith-based charities, in particular the Samaritan's Purse and Voice of the Martyrs, groups which he believes have been "genuinely committed" and should not to be tainted by the less scrupulous organizations. He will not mention the offending organizations by name, saying only that the majority are American fundamentalist churches.

Many of these churches will fly into Nairobi on chartered planes and stay in five-star hotels, before spending a brief amount of time in Sudan filming a documentary that they will use for fundraising at home. Very little of the money they raise ends up back in Sudan.

"They have a flying visit. They pay off some corrupt officials within the movement and they have everything organized for them," Eiffe explains. "They don't have any programs on the ground. They come here for a week or two and make a movie, then you don't see them again for 10 years. And people will fill their buckets. Their movie is very dramatic when you show it in affluent communities."

Most of the donors are elderly fundamentalist Christians. The fact that Khartoum is Muslim and many (but by no means all) of the slaves are Christians is especially highlighted when approaching this demographic.

"It's actually become a business. You can fly to the United States on a big salary and you become a big name. You're saving slaves in Southern Sudan's war."

Eiffe explains that the main way for potential donors to differentiate between good and bad Christian charities is to check if they have any staff, structures, or programs in Southern Sudan itself. Another important step is to check whether they have any other programs internationally, instead of just "picking something sexy somewhere" to ensure donations.

In addition to the financial exploitation involved, many critics suggest that the strategy taken by slave redemption programs actually encourages the slave trade. Many of the Christian charities will pay slaveholders for slaves, quite literally buying them back. This has led to reports of the slave trade increasing and even the possibility of slave prices rising as a result. There are also reports that people will claim to be slaves in order to make money once they are "redeemed."

There are political dangers as well. Accusations that Southern Sudanese rebels are backed by the United States are given more credence when American Christian groups keep such a high profile in the area. Khartoum is then able to claim to be a victim to Western crusaders and raise support among the Muslim world. This is, of course, unfounded. The Bush administration has made Khartoum an ally in the war on terror. And, just like the world superpowers who play a blood-soaked chess game in Sudan, the Christian Right has been fickle throughout the history of this conflict. Former US President Ronald Reagan gave financial and diplomatic support to Khartoum during the early years of Sudan's devastating civil war in the 1980s and once visited then-President Jafaar Nimairi with a group of Christian televangelists. The slave trade was active at this time.

There is a silver lining to this cloud, however. As Eiffe points out, the South was fighting a forgotten war, "a forgotten tragedy," and Christian charities raised awareness in the apathetic West. Although he cautions that an emphasis on the slavery issue ignores the political roots of the conflict and over-simplifies the world's view of it, he is glad that even a small amount of attention was given to Southern Sudan.

He remembers an NBC journalist who was sidetracked by a wildlife park when coming to investigate the slavery issue.

He quotes the journalist as saying: "Americans care more about dead elephants than dead Africans."

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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