The crisis in the Sudanese province of Darfur is usually reported as if it were something new. In fact, the Arab Islamists who are committing genocide there have also been committing genocide in other regions of Sudan over decades, killing some two million Christians in the process. But marauding Arabs have preyed on East Africa for centuries, as the story of Josephine Bakhita demonstrates.
She was born in Darfur in 1869. At age nine, she was kidnapped by Arab slave-traders. The experience so traumatized the girl that she forgot her real name; Bakhita, meaning “lucky,” was the name given her by her masters. Luck is always a relative concept; in this case, Bakhita was fortunate to survive. She was sold five times in the slave markets, flogged every day, and her entire body was covered with deep incisions into which salt was rubbed. She was left with 144 scars.
Bought by the Italian consul in Khartoum in 1882, Bakhita found herself caught up in the rebellion of the fanatical Islamic movement led by the Mahdi which drove out the Europeans and was eventually crushed by the British at the battle of Omdurman. She was brought back to Italy as a nanny and encountered Christianity in the gentle form of the nuns of the Canossian order.
At this point, Bakhita ceased to be a victim and took control of her destiny. When the consul’s wife came for her to return with the family to Sudan, she refused. The court decided that she could not be coerced, since slavery was illegal, and the Church took her side. She was baptized with the name “Josephine,” became a nun, and lived on until 1949. By the time she died, Josephine Bakhita had become widely revered as a holy woman, and half a century later Pope John Paul II canonized her as the first modern African saint.
Now Josephine Bakhita has acquired a new significance as a symbol of the ordeal of her native Darfur. In his new encyclical, Spe Salvi, John Paul’s successor Benedict XVI gave the slave girl who became a saint pride of place. The Pope did not need to spell out her symbolism: countless Africans have shared her fate at the hands of Arab raiders. Sudan is in the grip of an Islamist regime that has much in common with the Mahdists of the 1880s. Why has the Pope once again brought up the problem of Islam, albeit in an indirect form, by drawing attention to one of its victims? More than a year has passed since the controversy erupted over his Regensburg speech on September 12, 2006, in which he quoted the words of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Since then, Benedict has demonstrated his own readiness to engage positively with Islam: first by visiting Turkey — which, due to that very command, has become an overwhelmingly Muslim land — and more recently by replying, though cautiously, to the “Call” issued by 138 Muslim scholars and clerics on October 13, inviting Christian leaders to “A Common Word between Us.”
But the Pope, whose Regensburg speech drew attention to Islam’s theological failure to reconcile faith and reason, is surely aware that this “Call” is not a genuine show of mutual respect, but a subtle attempt to weaken the West’s resistance to jihad.
As the Anglican expert on Islam Patrick Sookhdeo has pointed out, this “Call” – the term is important — has the character of a missionary tract, or dawa. It is signed by Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabi scholars from Saudi Arabia, none of whom believes in any dialogue that does not result in submission to Islam. The letter’s theological assumptions are hostile to Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ.
The letter also suggests that Christians have been waging a crusade against Muslims and are therefore the aggressors, while omitting any mention of the persecution of Christians. The letter implies that under certain circumstances the Islamic world may declare holy war against the Christians. This sinister document is more of an ultimatum than an olive branch. A “Call,” an invocation to infidels to convert, is the necessary precursor to jihad.
Not many Christians have grasped this subtext. They, like Jewish rabbis, have responded warmly to the letter, not to mention secular leaders such as Prime Minister Brown, who praised this “remarkable” gesture and promised to make Britain a “European centre of excellence in Islamic studies.” As the British commentator Melanie Phillips says, this is like responding to Nazism by holding road shows on German culture.
The only one of these Western interlocutors who has firmly insisted on reciprocity as a condition for dialogue with Islam is Pope Benedict. Unless Islam is ready to tolerate other faiths, to explicitly abandon the irrational bellicosity already noted by the Byzantines and other civilizations Islam crushed in its path, the Pope will not give the Muslim intelligentsia the benefit of the doubt, as they demand.
As Benedict tries to fathom the meaning of Islam’s new phase of global expansion, he has the consolation of Josephine Bakhita’s indomitable spirit looking over his shoulder. She is a reminder that the price of submission to Islamofascism will not be paid in the first instance by pontiffs and presidents, governors and senators, prime ministers and chancellors, but by slave-girls in Africa and Asia.