Monday, May 1, 2006

Religious organizations, political groups and foreign nationals led thousands of people in a rally yesterday on the Mall to urge U.S. leaders to help end the widespread killings in Sudan’s Darfur region.

The rally brought together an unusual coalition of about 160 Catholic, evangelical, Muslim and Jewish organizations and Democratic and Republican lawmakers to help stop what many have called “a genocide.”

“This issue crosses every religion, every race, every age,” said Rinat Manhoff, 28, who came with about 200 people from Temple Micah in Northwest. “And now there is no excuse for the world not to do something about it.”

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Catholic archbishop of Washington, was among the key religious leaders who participated in the rally.

“It’s time now to say, ‘No more,’ ” he said. “We’ve been awakened to how these people suffer. We in Washington understand that we are all people, that we are all brothers and sisters. We can make a difference.”

The years of fighting between ethnic groups and Arab militias in western Sudan have killed at least 180,000 people and have left about 2 million homeless. The U.N. World Food Program said Friday that it was cutting rations there in half because of a lack of money.

Organizers estimated that about 75,000 people attended the event on the Mall, including 240 buses of activists from 41 states.

Organizers of the event, sponsored by the Save Darfur Coalition, had a permit for 10,000 to 15,000 people, said Sgt. Scott Fear of the U.S. Park Police. The agency does not give official crowd estimates.

The rally was just one of 18 over the weekend in several U.S. cities and coincided with a U.N. deadline for Darfur’s warring parties to reach a peace deal to end the three-year conflict.

The deadline for peace talks was extended yesterday, after rebels rejected a proposed deal to halt the fighting.

Salim Ahmed Salim, a lead mediator for the African Union, said the talks would continue until midnight tomorrow, pushing back the deadline for talks that have gone on for two years but so far have failed to halt the violence.

Earlier, the rebels called for changes to the pact — after the Sudanese government indicated that it would accept the proposal.

“The African Union has extended the deadline of the peace talks by 48 hours, as requested by the United States and other international partners to allow extensive consultations to go ahead,” he said at the talks’ site in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

“Darfur is about human lives,” said Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican now running for the U.S. Senate. “It is about our brothers and sisters dying on a continent that is 14 hours away. The power of your compassion [will] help cure the problems of the people of Darfur.”

The international community has poured in help while pressuring both sides to settle the conflict. Ralliers, however, said more needs to be done.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States has led the humanitarian relief efforts and is leading the push for a U.N. peacekeeping force.

“The United States has been one of the most active states” in seeking peace in the region, she said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“We also do need more support, frankly, from other members of the international community — from China, from Russia,” she said.

Sudanese officials had indicated that they might accept a U.N. force in Darfur to aid African Union troops if the peace treaty is signed.

President Bush met Friday at the White House with Darfur advocates and gave his support for the rallies.

“For those of you who are going out to march for justice, you represent the best of our country,” he said.

Five members of Congress were among 11 persons arrested Friday after protesting outside the Sudanese Embassy.

Actor George Clooney was one of several celebrities, athletes and high-ranking lawmakers to speak at the rally. Others included Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California; Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel; and Olympic speed-skating champion Joey Cheek.

However, it was Mr. Clooney’s recent trip to Darfur with his father, Nick — and his “credit card” of celebrity, as he described it last week in the District — that sparked much of the interest in the rally.

“This is the first genocide of the 21st century, but there is hope. There is you,” Mr. Clooney said. “My father and I are proud to stand with you today and tomorrow, and we’ll stand with you every day until this travesty has ended.”

Mr. Cheek, who donated his Olympic bonus money to relief efforts in Darfur, said he was sad because celebrity was needed to draw attention to the crisis.

“But I feel we have a moral obligation to these people,” he said.

Religious leaders also praised those who attended the rally for crossing so many political and religious lines.

“A crisis like this can help bring together groups,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, who spoke alongside hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. “We need to find issues that bring us together, especially the African Americans and Jews.”

With the Capitol Rotunda as backdrop, ralliers chanted “Not on our watch” while waving flags and posters with such slogans such as “Never Again” and “Save Darfur.”

“We’re standing in for the victims, because they can’t speak for themselves,” said Camilla Blomquist, 22, who came to the rally with about 40 other people from New York.

Several U.S. Park Police cruisers lined the north side of the Mall between Third and Sixth streets Northwest, and at least two mounted officers monitored the crowd. The Metropolitan Police Department did not close streets, turn on surveillance cameras or provide other assistance, Chief Charles H. Ramsey said. No serious injuries or other problems were reported.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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