Southern Sudanese rebel leader John Garang is currently in Washington, re-focusing attention on the brutal civil war in Sudan. Mr. Garang's visit comes less than two weeks after the U.S. State Department released its annual human rights report, which criticized both the rebels and the Sudanese government.
During his trip to Washington, John Garang - leader of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army - has called for international pressure on Sudan's government to make peace in the long-running civil war. The conflict has led to atrocities on both sides. Southern Sudan, where rebels have been fighting since 1983, is primarily Christian and animist, while the north is predominantly Muslim.
This is the religious backdrop for the State Department's criticisms of the Sudanese government and rebels regarding human rights. This year's report said Sudan is a country of particular concern because of restrictions on religious freedom. The report accused the Sudanese government of carrying out a campaign of forcibly converting non-Muslim children and displaced people.
In an interview with VOA, Sudan's Ambassador to the United States, Khidir Haroun Ahmed, rejected the allegations of forced conversions and said many Christians from the south live around the capital, Khartoum.
"So, I would say that this is something which they keep reporting each year without attention to the reality of the situation in Sudan. If you visit, I would invite you to visit Sudan yourself, to see for yourself how the Christians in Khartoum and in different parts of the country worship freely at their religious institutions," Mr. Ahmed says.
The Sudanese Ambassador questioned the veracity of the reports of forced conversions to Islam, but said he did not think U.S. policy-makers are guilty of anti-Islamic bias. He said their criticisms of Sudan are based on what he called misinformation.
The State Department also said Sudanese citizens do not have the ability to change their government peacefully, and that Khartoum severely restricts freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The human rights report said security forces and pro-government militias have acted with impunity. The State Department said these forces carried out summary executions, and flogged, harassed, and arbitrarily detained opponents and suspected opponents of the government.
Ambassador Ahmed also dismissed these criticisms, saying political parties freely operate in Sudan and several political exiles have returned to the country. "So, I think they failed to pinpoint the great developments that took place in the country the last five, six years. I think the situation is very, very much better now. We have more than 29 independent newspapers criticizing the government every day; we have political parties. So, unfortunately, these are not reflected in the country report of the State Department of this year," he says.
The Sudanese Ambassador said he believes the U.S. report is based on information from non-governmental organizations and other groups hostile to Sudan.
However, the State Department is not alone in denouncing human rights abuses in Sudan. Members of the U.S. Congress, other Western nations, and human rights groups have long criticized the lack of freedom in Sudan, and abuses perpetrated in the civil war in the south.
This year's State Department report also accused Mr. Garang's rebel movement of committing numerous, serious abuses. The report said the rebels were responsible for killings, beatings, rapes, arbitrary detention, and the use of child soldiers. Mr. Garang is meeting with U.S. officials and members of Congress during his visit and these issues are expected to be discussed.