The likely partition of Sudan is a result of Islam’s increasing intolerance, writes Con Coughlin. The Telegraph
George Clooney, the Hollywood actor who spends increasing amounts of his spare time playing the role of a globe-trotting peace activist, has hardly been able to contain his excitement over this week’s controversial referendum on splitting Sudan in two.
“It is something to see people actually voting for their freedom,” the Ocean’s Eleven star gushed as he mingled with the long queues of tribesfolk patiently waiting to cast their votes. “That’s not something you see often in life.”
The 49-year-old was speaking as an estimated four million voters in southern Sudan, predominantly Christians, took part in a plebiscite that will decide whether the south is divided from the north to form a new nation.
When the polling stations close on Saturday, it is widely predicted that the pro-independence campaign will get the 60 per cent of the vote needed to sanction the division of Africa’s largest country – which is equivalent in size to Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Spain, Greece and the UK combined.
The referendum is being held as part of a peace deal agreed in 2005 between the government of President Omar al-Bashir and the leaders of southern Sudan’s rebel movement, after more than 20 years of bitter civil war, which claimed an estimated two million lives.
In 1983, a widespread revolt had erupted in the south over claims that Christians there routinely suffered at the hands of the country’s Muslim majority, which controls the government in Khartoum.
Mr Clooney and the other celebrity hangers-on that have descended this week on Juba, the fly-blown capital of the south, believe that, by declaring independence from Khartoum, the minority Christians can make a better life for themselves.
But the reality of secession is likely to be very different. Southern Sudan is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions on the planet, where the absence of basic provisions, such as health and education, means that a typical 15-year-old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than of finishing school.
The south occupies an area the size of France, but has just 38 miles of paved roads. By breaking ties with the north, it risks making its economic plight even more perilous. The world’s 193rd state – suggested names include New Sudan, Equatoria and the Nile Republic – would almost certainly be the most impoverished.
If, as many diplomats are warning, secession will make life worse for the majority of people in southern Sudan, why are they so keen on separation?
The answer lies in the uncompromising approach the Arabised government in Khartoum has adopted towards non-Muslims. Since independence in 1956, the southerners have invariably been treated as serfs by their Muslim overlords, who often sought to starve them into submission when they complained.
And worryingly, the seemingly irreparable rift between Sudan’s Christian and Muslim communities is being replicated in many parts of the Arab world, where the growing intolerance of Islamist hard-liners has led to an alarming escalation in violence against Christians.
In Iraq, a stream of al-Qaeda attacks against Christians has seen a community that numbered around 1.5 million at the time of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003 reduced to 400,000.
This exodus has increased considerably since the appalling attack on the Church of our Salvation in Baghdad at the end of last year, which killed 58 worshippers. In a grotesque demonstration of their contempt for the Christian faith, the suicide bombers blew themselves up on the altar, along with a child hostage.
The bombing over the new year of a church in the port of Alexandria has had a similarly devastating impact on Egypt’s eight million Copts, who comprise 10 per cent of the country’s population. Al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq have been blamed for the attack, which killed 21 worshippers.
Much of the blame for the deterioration in relations between the faiths lies with the growing legions of Islamist militants who seek to wage jihad against the West. But the origins of Islamic intolerance for other faiths, particularly Judaism and Christianity, can be traced back to the Prophet himself: on his death bed, he instructed followers that only one faith – Islam – could be allowed in Arabia. Christianity remains banned in Saudi Arabia, which claims to be a close ally of the West, and Christians are not allowed to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, where the Prophet lived and preached. Last year, 12 Filipinos and a priest were arrested for “proselytism”, after they held a secret mass in Riyadh.
Muslims of a more moderate persuasion argue that Islam is a tolerant faith, and that their religion allows for co-existence with other faiths. There was a graphic illustration of the potential for better co-operation this week when a group of Egyptian Muslims formed a “human shield” to protect Coptic Christians as they celebrated their version of Christmas.
But increasingly, such acts of generosity are the exception. For many Christians, the ability to enjoy a peaceful co-existence with their Muslim neighbours is but a distant memory