GWEN IFILL: Protests in the streets of Washington -
PROTESTER: Stop killing; stop slavery.
GWEN IFILL: -- human rights activists once again under arrest, calling attention to actions of a government far away, of atrocities far away in Sudan. But this time, the protesters are an unlikely collection of liberals and conservatives, religious leaders and secular ones. When three activists, including former Congressman Walter Fauntroy, were arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy earlier this year, they were defended in court by conservative lawyer Ken Starr and liberal attorney Johnnie Cochran-- conservative Christians and liberal civil rights groups joining forces to take on the government of Sudan. It is, for some, a religious argument. 70 percent of Sudan's population is Muslim, only 5 percent Christian. The Islamic majority, some Americans say, is oppressing Christians. Mike Pence, a Republican congressman from Indiana, attended this Capitol Hill rally.
REP. MIKE PENCE: I stand before you as a opponent of slavery. But I also stand before you as a Midwesterner and a Christian. I stand before today with those in southern Sudan who have been persecuted in outlandish numbers for simply believing in their Christian faith.
GWEN IFILL: It's also a civil rights argument. The Sudanese government, protesters say, condones the enslavement of its own people, allowing government-supported troops from the north to buy, sell, and torture rebels in the South-- part of the spoils of war. Talk show host and liberal activist Joe Madison has traveled to Sudan.
JOE MADISON: I've seen it. I've felt it. I've touched them. I saw a woman who had her throat cut because the slave master wanted her baby, so he took a knife and cut her throat to take the baby. She still fought, so he took a torch and burned her breast off. I saw an eight-year-old boy who had his hands chopped off because he wouldn't clean a goat pen, or a woman who gave birth to a baby in a goat pen, and the baby was so malnourished that the goats tried to eat the newborn baby. That's slavery.
GWEN IFILL: Sudan, a desert nation of 35 million, is the largest country on the African continent. Torn by decades of civil war and bouts of famine, more than one- and-a-half million have died. Millions others are homeless. The war pits the mostly Muslim northern seat of government against Christians in the South. But the government insists that westerners are distorting the facts. They say the allegations of slavery and religious oppression are just that, allegations. Khidir Ahmed is the Sudanese ambassador to the United States. He has found few friends here.
KHIDIR AHMED, Ambassador, Sudan: The problem with what people in this country usually hear about the situation with Sudan is, unfortunately, disinformation, one side of the story, a lot of unverifiable allegations about what is going on. Unfortunately, some circles here are fueling the war by this misinformation, by donations to the rebel movement in southern Sudan.
GWEN IFILL: There is no slavery, the ambassador says-- only abduction, an illegal trade in human beings that he maintains is practiced by both sides in the protracted civil war.
KHIDIR AHMED: We have very limited resources. We could not enforce the law all over this huge continent. So we admit the fact that this practice of abductions, which is not a slavery. It has nothing to do with slavery, as you experienced here in this country 400 years ago or in other parts of the world.
GWEN IFILL: Earlier this month, the Khartoum government signed onto a peace plan brokered by Egypt and Libya. But no peace talks are scheduled. Members of Congress like Senator Bill Frist have traveled to Sudan to see for themselves, many of their trips organized by Christian relief organizations like Samaritan's Purse, run by Billy graham's son Franklin, who prayed at President Bush's inauguration. Texas Republican Dick Armey, the majority leader of the House of Representatives, has been meeting to discuss Sudan with, among others, Kweisi Mfume of the NAACP.
GWEN IFILL: What do you say to people who look at you and say, what are you doing involved in this situation with these folks, who you have nothing else in common? What are you doing with Walter Fauntroy and Kweisi Mfume and Joe Madison? Dick Armey, what are you doing there?
REP. RICHARD ARMEY: Well, first of all, it would not be the first time that you've seen Dick Armey involved with Walter Fauntroy and Kweisi Mfume. I've just met Joe Madison. You know, the fact is, there is heartbreak here and there is horror. There are babies that are murdered and mothers that are raped and tortured. You be involved with whom ever else cares, and you hope you can encourage others to care. And maybe the fact that it seems a peculiar group of people sharing a concern, maybe that provokes others to say, "I want to know more about what this is, and what's going on here."
GWEN IFILL: The Sudanese government and its detractors may agree on only one set of facts: That the decades of war have torn the country apart.
SPOKESMAN: All people, wherever they may be...
GWEN IFILL: Bishop Macram Max Gassis, a Sudanese Catholic cleric who lives in exile in Kenya, says he has been indicted for criticizing the government's human rights record. He has traveled the U.S. screening a film about two trips he made to his Nuba Mountain diocese. The bishop says the Sudanese government has blocked relief aid provided by the United Nations. He made his case during a recent appearance at Washington's Holocaust Museum.
BISHOP MACRAM MAX GASSIS: The longer these people stay in power, the more damage they are going to do, and devastating damage they are going to do. In fact, we have already two million Sudanese dead. What are we waiting for, for the balance of the other four, so we have a grand total of six, like the Jews? So we will now have another Holocaust, and then we establish... We build monuments in their memory, and then the international community will say, "we are very sorry"? Sorry for what? Already six million have died, a victim of racism and victim of religious intolerance.
GWEN IFILL: The Bush White House has yet to come up with an official position on Sudan. But pressures at home and abroad have played a role in the decision to appoint a humanitarian envoy to Sudan, and to launch a search for a diplomatic envoy as well. Traveling in Africa last month, Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that the U.S. should talk to all sides in the dispute, including the government in Khartoum. The U.S. shut down its embassy there in 1996.
COLIN POWELL: We will see if the Khartoum government is interested in constructive engagement. We will measure their behavior, we will measure their response to our actions, and see whether or not if we have a basis for going forward.
GWEN IFILL: Sudanese government officials say they would welcome a stepped-up U.S. role.
KHIDIR AHMED: We think that the United States, as a sole super power of our time, is in a good position to pressure the other side to facilitate for both sides to sit around a negotiating table and try to come with a peaceful solution to dispute today rather than tomorrow.
GWEN IFILL: But the Sudanese government was dismayed last spring when the State Department agreed to supply a opposition alliance with $3 million in logistical support. Plus, the House has also authorized sending $10 million to antigovernment rebels. The Khartoum government says American leaders have a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation in Sudan.
GWEN IFILL: Let me try to make sure that I'm clear on this. The problems, which exist, they are as a result of the fallout from a civil war?
KHIDIR AHMED: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: What steps should be taken to obtain peace?
KHIDIR AHMED: The step that should be taken is a comprehensive cease-fire, okay? Followed by negotiations, okay? And the two parties should be encouraged by international community to try to strike a peace deal.
GWEN IFILL: But peaceful solutions may not be easy to find. As if disputes over religion and slavery were not enough, now there is also a dispute over money. Is this a religious war that's going on?
JOE MADISON: It's everything. It's a religious war. It is Arab versus black. But the thing that's driving it more than anything else is oil. Oil.
GWEN IFILL: Recently discovered oil fields, many in the South, are earning millions for the government, money that opponents say is paying for arms and fueling the war. No American companies operate in Sudan, but oil companies from Canada, Sweden, and China all do business with the government there. The House of Representatives voted last month to ban foreign companies that operate in Sudan from raising capital in the U.S.
REP. TOM LANTOS: I am pleased to say that there are no American oil companies involved, but it pains me to no end to indicate that an oil company from Sweden, and oil company from Canada, and much less surprisingly, oil companies owned by Malaysia and Communist China, are providing the funds to this outrageous government to pursue and perpetrate its atrocities.
GWEN IFILL: The U.S. lawmakers and antigovernment activists say oil money props up a pro-slavery regime, erasing another incentive for peace.
BISHOP MACRAM MAX GASSIS: So for me, oil is a curse. For me, oil has inflamed the war. Khartoum now is... they have renovated their arsenal. They have more sophisticated weapons. They are producing now ammunition and assault rifles and huge, big trucks for the war. So instead of bringing more education to the people, more health services, more... better the agriculture, it is bringing killing. So for me, I say this oil is blood.
GWEN IFILL: But Ambassador Ahmed adds it up differently. Oil companies take their profit and Sudan pays down its huge foreign debt, he says, and the rest is spent on development in oil-producing regions.
KHIDIR AHMED: We have not any reliable source come up with concrete evidence says the government of Sudan is using the oil drilling use in order to facilitate or in order to upgrade its capacity of civil war in Southern Sudan. The opposite is true.
GWEN IFILL: The conflict is profound. But here in the United States, there seems to be little debate about who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed. No matter what the motivating point, be it religion or slavery or human rights or famine relief, popular agitation over Sudan is only gathering force.
JOE MADISON: When I went to southern Sudan the first time and was involved in freeing over 4,000 slaves, all women and children-- the second time over 3,000-- no one asked me if I was a Muslim. No one asked me if I was a Christian. They didn't ask me if I was a Democrat or Republican. They didn't ask me if I was conservative or liberal. They asked me for help.
GWEN IFILL: A cry for help that might otherwise go ignored, if not for the powerful coalition of otherwise conflicting interests pressuring the U.S. to act, and forcing Sudan onto the front burner of Bush administration foreign policy.