By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 2006
An unusually broad coalition of 164 humanitarian and religious groups, including Amnesty International and the National Association of Evangelicals, is planning a huge rally Sunday on the Mall to call for intervention to end the violence in Sudan's Darfur region.
With the added draw of celebrity speakers such as actor George Clooney and Olympic speedskating gold medalist Joey Cheek, organizers expect tens of thousands of people to converge on the District.
Stop Genocide rallies also are planned in Chicago, San Francisco and 15 other cities. An allied campaign, A Million Voices for Darfur, aims to deluge the White House with 1 million postcards. The goal is to push the Bush administration to support a multinational peacekeeping force for Darfur, where militias backed by Sudan's government have killed tens of thousands of civilians and driven 2.5 million from their homes since 2003.
Christian groups first took a strong interest in Sudan in the 1990s, stirred by reports that Arab raiders were enslaving Christians in the south. They helped prod the Bush administration to broker a peace treaty that formally halted the fighting in the south last year.
The crisis in Darfur, which began as the war in the south waned, has resonated even more widely. Muslims see brethren in need. Jews have responded to the cry of "never again." Beginning with interfaith rallies a year ago that drew fewer than 100 people to the Mall, the issue has united religious groups that seldom cooperate. It also has caught fire among high school and college students.
"What we do about Darfur says a lot about us and the conscience of our generation. We don't have that excuse anymore, saying we didn't know about it, there's nothing we can do," said Adam Zuckerman, 18, a senior at Deering High School in Portland, Maine. He raised $6,000 to bring a busload of Reform Jews and Sudanese immigrants from Maine to the rally.
Keeping the peace within the diverse Save Darfur Coalition has not been easy. Tensions have arisen, in particular, between evangelical Christians and immigrants from Darfur, whose population is almost entirely Muslim and deeply suspicious of missionary activity.
Organizers rushed this week to invite two Darfurians to address the rally after Sudanese immigrants objected that the original list of speakers included eight Western Christians, seven Jews, four politicians and assorted celebrities -- but no Muslims and no one from Darfur.
Some Darfur activists also have complained about the involvement in the rally of a Kansas-based evangelical group, Sudan Sunrise.
Last week, after an inquiry from The Washington Post, Sudan Sunrise changed its Web site to eliminate references to efforts to convert the people of Darfur. Previously, it said it was engaged in "one on one, lifestyle evangelism to Darfurian Muslims living in refugee camps in eastern Chad" and appealed for money to "bring the kingdom of God to an area of Sudan where the light of Jesus rarely shines."
Although it is not formally part of the Save Darfur Coalition, Sudan Sunrise helped arrange buses and speakers, and it is co-hosting a dinner for 600 people on the rally's eve. The group's executive director, the Rev. Tom Prichard, said the material on the Web site was written in error "by an employee who was not fully informed." He added: "We've been very, very careful not to do anything that's going to alienate the Muslims."
Sudan Sunrise and an allied group, the Sudan Council of Churches-USA, also have angered Darfurians by saying that the "victims in western Darfur are the people who persecuted the Christian southern Sudanese" during the civil war. Prichard, an Episcopal priest, said his group encourages Christians from southern Sudan to come to the aid of their "former persecutors."
Mohamed Ibrahim, co-chairman of the Darfur Alert Coalition, an umbrella for 22 Sudanese and American organizations, is highly critical of that approach. Sudan Sunrise "says it is looking for reconciliation, and they are actually creating a conflict by spreading the false claim that the perpetrators of the violence in southern Sudan were from Darfur," he said.
Independent experts also said that although there were many conscripts from Darfur in the Sudanese army, the Sudanese government, which was not controlled by Darfurians, prosecuted the war.
Rally organizers said they cannot control the agendas of all the rally's participants.
"I have no idea who these Sunrise people are. They certainly aren't part of our coalition," said David Rubenstein, head of the Save Darfur Coalition. "With 164 groups, I barely have time to think about the horrible things they're all doing."