- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Roman Catholic bishop of El Obeid, in south-central Sudan, plans to return to his war-torn country after fears for his own safety prompted him to flee in 1990.

Bishop Macram Max Gassis, 65, who has been called “brother” by former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and is on first-name terms with two congressmen who have visited Sudan, said January’s peace agreement between the Khartoum government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) is working well enough to allow him to return.

“They say, ‘Why do you go back?’” he said yesterday in an interview in Georgetown. “I say, ‘People who are in love do crazy things.’”

The northern part of his Sudanese diocese is government-occupied; the southern half is controlled by the SPLA. The country has endured a lengthy civil war between the Muslim regime and rebels in the south, a non-Muslim region of Christians and animists.

The south has resisted since the imposition of Islamic Shariah law in 1983 by then-President Gaafar Nimeiry.

In 1988, the bishop testified before the U.S. Congress about human rights abuses in Sudan. A warrant was issued for his arrest at the airport in Khartoum and he was jailed, but a local archbishop bailed him out.

He then left the country to get treatment for cancer at Georgetown University Hospital.

He has secretly visited the southern half of his diocese from time to time from his new headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, but he has not been able to visit his see in the city of El Obeid for years.

His Diocese of El Obeid, one of nine in Sudan, also encompasses the war-torn area of Darfur in western Sudan, which was visited yesterday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It includes 120,000 Catholics ministered to by 40 priests.

Before the bishop returns late this year or early next year, he wants to complete projects started by his Bishop Gassis Sudan Relief Fund, which provides aid and psychological counseling to orphaned children.

His work on behalf of children who were abducted from the south by Arab slave raiders earned him the 2000 William Wilberforce Award from Prison Fellowship.

His fund has only a one-star rating from charitynavigator .org, a Web site that rates charities for their effectiveness. The site found the fund’s 46 percent administrative overhead problematic.

However, the bishop says costs to fly supplies into Sudan are prohibitive and insists funds get to where they are directed.

“We’re facing compassion fatigue,” he said. “We’re facing donor fatigue. But we do try to show every cent given us is being used properly.” He cited a $600,000 grant received two years ago from the U.S. Agency for International Development for a water-purification project has resulted in 150 wells being dug so far.

His fund, described on www.petersvoice.com, has taken on the construction of a hospital in the Nuba Mountains. So far, he’s persuaded Italian contacts to donate $300,000 for that, but he needs much more.

“The foundation of peace is reconciliation based on justice to heal the wounds of the war. As a church, our biggest challenge now is to pick up the human pieces traumatized by the war,” he said.

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