Israel must do right by its Sudanese refugees

Israel must do right by

There are 2,500 people in Israel just like me - Christians from Southern Sudan who were persecuted brutally by the Khartoum government and who have always loved and admired the Jewish state. The Christians of Southern Sudan and the people of Israel share a great deal in common - religious heritage, a long memory of oppression, and the enmity of the worst regimes in the Middle East and Africa. As a former child slave in Southern Sudan who now fights for two interrelated causes - the State of Israel and the abolition of slavery in the Muslim world - I want to tell the people of this country about my countrymen who are seeking refuge here. They are not a threat to you; on the contrary, they are lovers of Zion and natural allies of the Jewish state. What's more, they are ready to be a bridge between this country and the independent nation of Southern Sudan that is waiting to be born a little over a year from now. Thus, there are two reasons why Israel needs to do right by the refugees from Southern Sudan - for their sake and for the sake of Israel itself. Currently some 6,000 Sudanese refugees reside in this country. About 3,500 of them are Muslims - the majority from Darfur. A significant percentage of the Darfur refugees have been given temporary political asylum. If Israel does not grant the 2,500 Southern Sudanese Christians similar protection, or special dispensation, and they are forced to return to Sudan anytime in the near future, they will face execution or long imprisonment. According to Sudanese law, the fact that they have set foot in Israel - loathed by Khartoum as the ultimate enemy - makes their "offense" extremely grave. Yet after almost three years in this country, they remain in limbo - without asylum, without knowing if and when they may be sent out of the country, without knowing what the future holds. For now they possess three-month "conditional visas," which keeps them in a state of uncertainty; to give a minimal measure of stability to their lives, it is essential to extend these visas for six to 12 months. THESE CHRISTIANS fled to Israel through Egypt in order to escape forced Islamization and possible enslavement. Crimes against humanity have a long history in Sudan; a little-known fact is that the number of Christian Sudanese victims of these enormities far exceeds that of the victims in Darfur. Between 1955 and 1972, the Muslim regime in Khartoum slaughtered nearly 1.5 million Southern Sudanese Christians. Between 1983 and 2005, 2 million more met the same fate. Another 100,000 (a conservative estimate) were enslaved in the north, and seven million were made refugees. The government of Khartoum has long singled out Southern Sudanese Christians and accused them of being traitors, even agents of Israel. The regime regards this as the worst possible crime. However, this accusation is a source of stubborn pride to the Southern Sudanese who love Israel, who identify with Israel - and there are many who dream of visiting the Holy Land as pilgrims and tourists. But again, protecting the Christian Southern Sudanese refugees is also in the enlightened self-interest of the State of Israel. In 2011 the Southern Sudanese will vote whether or not to remain as "one Sudan" united with the north or to secede and become a separate country. If the Christian Southern Sudanese vote for secession - a virtual certainty - they will have their own nation as a free people for the first time in history. I know these people well. I know their leaders. I feel confident that a free Southern Sudan will be a strong ally of the State of Israel. This alliance would reflect a regional catharsis. The 2,500 Christians from Southern Sudan now residing in Israel could be the link between Israel and this new Christian nation - a pillar of a new, friendly, mutually beneficial relationship, a beacon for the future. Thus, I urge the people of Israel and their leaders to help resolve the Southern Sudanese refugees' situation, end their legal limbo and give them the tools they need to be productive - either in their adopted home or in their new state that will be born very soon. The writer, who escaped child slavery in Southern Sudan and now lives in New York, speaks on behalf of Southern Sudanese victims at synagogues, yeshivot and evangelical churches across the US. In 2006 he was honored for his anti-slavery activism at the Anti-Defamation League's annual Concert Against Hate in Washington's Kennedy Center.