Wearing a frown that creased his unreasonably handsome features, George Clooney was handcuffed by police outside the gates of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, DC last Friday, during a protest against a renewed military offensive by the Khartoum regime in the border areas of newly independent South Sudan. The Hollywood actor was shepherded to a waiting patrol car along with a troupe of civil rights leaders, including several Jewish representatives, who were also detained.
The spectacle was a timely reminder that the coalition which crystallized around the genocide in Sudan's Darfur region -- in which Jewish communal organizations were heavily involved, together with assorted celebrities and civil rights groups -- has endured. South Sudan is the site of a bloody and seemingly endless conflict that has already claimed upwards of two million lives. The country now faces a new round of murder and mass displacement at the hands of its northern neighbor.
How should these latest horrors be contextualized? In a recent interview, Clooney discussed his visit to the Nuba Mountains, the inhospitable terrain that lies at the heart of the current conflict. "Religion is not an issue," he said, when asked about the causes of the war. "In the camps you will find Christians and Muslims hiding together. It is ethnic in nature."
Given the increasingly sharp debate about Islam here in America, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the liberal Clooney is keen to avoid talk of a religious war. Nonetheless, the Islamist character of the regime in Khartoum can hardly be deemed incidental to the conflict.
In common with other Arab countries, Arab chauvinism in Sudan is combined with a domineering, supremacist version of Islam. The religious aspect was dramatically underlined at the beginning of March, when Sudan announced that it had stripped around 700,000 of its citizens of their nationality, the vast majority Christian. They have just over two weeks from today to leave Sudan. Those who depart for the south will walk straight into an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. Those who remain in the north face the prospect of imprisonment or forced deportation.
To this depressing tale of ethno-religious cleansing, we can add the problem of slavery. The government of South Sudan says that there are 30,000 slaves being held in the north, the clear majority of whom, again, are Christians. As far as the north is concerned, there is no slavery in Sudan, a line about as credible as the Tehran regime's insistence that there are no homosexuals in Iran.
Instances of Christian persecution can be found in nearly every Muslim country. The death sentence imposed on Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian pastor who committed the mortal sin of converting to Christianity from Islam, has highlighted the tenuous situation faced by Iranian adherents of the faith. In Nigeria, Christian churches are bombed with mounting frequency by the Islamist terrorists of Boko Haram, whose name translates as "western education is a sin." In Egypt, the Coptic minority faces violence and discrimination that will likely get worse, given the strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist parties in the recent elections. In Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia - you name it - reports of Christians being falsely charged with blasphemy or apostasy, along with gruesome tales of beheadings and beatings, are multiplying by the day.
Though not every Christian community in the Middle East lives with the scale of terror currently spreading through Sudan, it is legitimate to ask whether Sudan provides a terrifying glimpse of the future for Christians in the wider region. In that sense, it's worth paying to heed to the statement delivered on March 12 by Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, who declared that it is "necessary to destroy all the churches of the region."
In the event that their churches are destroyed, the Christians who worship in them will surely follow. It must also be acknowledged that Christians are repressed both by the allies of the west, like Saudi Arabia, and by its adversaries, like Iran and Sudan.
Jews and Christians in America already have an encouraging record of joint campaigning, especially when it comes to Israel advocacy. Both communities now have a duty to raise the banner of Christian persecution, an issue with similar mobilizing potential to the campaign against apartheid in South Africa, or freedom for Soviet Jews. They need to do so with urgency and clarity. We may not have reached a final, genocidal phase yet, but we are headed in that direction.
Ben Cohen is a New York-based writer and communications consultant. His articles and essays have been published by Commentary, Fox News, The New York Post, The Forward and many other outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @bencohenopinion