WASHINGTON, Feb. 18 (RNS)--Just a week after a Sudanese military airplane bombed a Catholic primary school, killing 14 students and one teacher, Roman Catholic Bishop Macram Max Gassis, head of the Nuba diocese in which the bombing occurred told a U.S. audience it was an intentional "slaughter of the innocents."

"I have time and time again told the world that the National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum has been, and is, conducting a campaign of genocide aimed at exterminating the Christian, African and non-Arab populations of Sudan in order to establish a uniform Arab-Islamic fundamentalist state in the heart of Africa," Gassis said.

"This terrible, heartbreaking incident is yet another piece of evidence, if more were still needed, that the war in Sudan is a religious and ethnic war launched by Khartoum and aimed at the destruction of my people. We call upon the international community to refuse to stand idly by as the Christian population of Africa and Sudan is exterminated."

Gassis spoke out against the Feb. 8 attack at a public hearing on religious freedom in Sudan held Feb. 15 at the Capitol.

Activists along with Muslims and Christians exiled from the Sudan met to call for the United States to pursue an end to reigious persecution in the war-torn country, where more than 2 million people have died in fighting and war-induced famines since strife began in 1983 between the Islamic government in the north and rebels in the predominately African, animist and Christian south.

There may be signs the U.S. government--and others--are listening.

"No situation in the world has a greater sense of urgency," said Rabbi David Saperstein, chairman of the nine-member congressionally created U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which sponsored the hearing--its first on the issue. "Two million are dead already. Four to five million have been displaced. The suffering that is happening is not a factor of famine or war, but a government policy that uses food...as a weapon of war."

Though the Sudanese government contends the school was an appropriate target because rebels were nearby, the bombing prompted both Secretary of State Madeline Albright and President Clinton to issue statements denouncing the act.

"It is an outrage that such egregious abuses against innocent Sudanese citizens have become commonplace in the ongoing civil war in Sudan, which has claimed over two million lives," Clinton said in a statement. "The United States calls on the government of Sudan to cease all aerial bombardment and to refrain from any attacks on civilian targets. We also call for full and immediate access for humanitarian organizations seeking to provide relief to war-ravaged civilians in Sudan."

The school bombing came only three weeks after the government of Sudan promised a cease-fire.

"If this is not religious and ethnic discrimination, then I don't know what is," said Gassis. "We should not hide our heads in the sand and call it merely a political issue...The time has come for Christian leadership to speak out."

He said the crisis in Sudan was greatly underreported by U.S. media, and questioned why crises in other countries received more attention.

"Why is Kosovo, Balkans, Bosnia and the Middle East mentioned in the news,and we in Sudan are not?" demanded Gassis. "We need monitors in the area just as much as other areas."

Francis M. Deng, a former Sudanese ambassador to the United States, said the lack of media attention is no surprise to him because countries are afraid to get involved in the matter.

"There is a certain ambivalence on the part of the international community," said Deng. "There is a certain fear of Sudan breaking up--people think of Rwanda and Somalia, and they fear the consequences."

Deng said support for those persecuted in Sudan must go beyond rhetoric.

"To the extent that there is sympathy in this Capitol today for the south,it sends the signal that there is support in the nation when there is not," said Deng. "People have to be careful--either give genuine support that promotes the rights of African people or be not so loud to talk about support."

Just a day after the hearings, the United States expanded its economic sanctions against Sudan--in place since 1997--to include a joint oil venture between Sudan's state-owned oil company and three foreign firms, including Canada's Talisman Energy Corp. The companies have major investments in a new Sudanese oil pipeline that critics allege generates money Sudan's government uses to help fund the country's civil war.

That charge prompted nine religious leaders to issue letters Jan. 27 asking investors to divest all holdings in the company.

"We are very concerned that investment in Sudan's oil sector strengthens the capacity of the Khartoum regime to maintain and intensify its brutal war against its own people," said State Department Spokesman James Rubin. "We certainly have concerns about the way in which this Canadian and other companies have essentially provided a new source of hard currency to a region that has been responsible for massive human rights abuses in Sudan and sponsoring terror outside of Sudan."

The decision to expand sanctions drew criticism from the Canadian government. Earlier this week, Canada announced its plans to re-establish a diplomatic presence in Sudan, and decided against imposing its own sanctions against the African country.

"We make our own policy in Canada, based on Canadian values and Canadian judgment as to the most effective way to support the peace process in Sudan," said Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, according to the Toronto Star. "We don't change simply because somebody in the (U.S.) Treasury Department makes a decision of this kind."

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