The evangelical crusade

Observations on Sudan

''Ideally, a training programme for villagers in Sudan and elsewhere would include the basics of survival: the right way to dig a trench to dispose of human waste, how to dig a well . . . But it should also teach them how to hunt and shoot, including how to shoot at a marauder who is attacking them."

So said Marvin Olasky, muse of President George W Bush's compassionate conservatism, last month. "If we say fighting back is never warranted," he added, "then we are likely to see Middle Eastern history multiplied, with churches turned into mosques."

Sudan may be new to our front pages, but it has been the abiding international preoccupation of the US evangelical movement for well over a decade. As evangelicals see it, the Islamic government is trying forcibly to convert and enslave the Christian and animist south.

Since the coup in 1989 churches such as the Southern Baptist Convention have consistently lobbied for action. They campaigned for a Commission on International Religious Freedom, which made Sudan its first priority when it was set up in 1999. For many evangelicals, the rallying cry is religious freedom, not human or civil rights. The railings of Sudan's embassy in Washington are targeted by chains of Baptists, who orga-nise mass write-ins and lobby Congress incessantly.

The Geneva-based Christian Solidarity International claims to have redeemed (that is, bought and freed) 48,000 slaves from Sudan with money raised from Christians across the world. Unsurprisingly, this has done little to end the trade, and may have helped to embed it. US aid goes chiefly to the south. Hundreds of Christian charities operate there, too. It has been a whole mess of good intentions, with a death toll of millions.

Sudan was high on Bush's pre-9/11 list of priorities. On 6 September 2001, he appointed the former Missouri senator John Danforth (the minister who officiated at Ronald Reagan's funeral) as his envoy to Sudan. Then state department realpolitik took over, with some success: terrorists were expelled, fundamentalists curbed and a peace treaty secured.

When the conflict in Darfur began this year, the Baptists rapidly shifted their lobbying for action there. Congress approved motions naming the events as "genocide" at the end of July. Pressure continues for the regime, invariably characterised as "militant", to be taken to task, once and for all. Meanwhile, images of the despair in Darfur excite general calls for action, after more than 20 years of killing. People are at last looking at Sudan, but what they are seeing is a simplified view. And simplicity is just about the worst thing we could bring to Sudan.