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Non-Muslim refugees in Sudan face extreme pressure to convert

An unexpected roar of jubilation interrupted the mourning for the vice president and six others killed recently in a plane crash. Hassan al Turabi, the ideological leader of the country's Islamic regime, had just announced that the only Christian among the dead was a last-minute convert to Islam.

There was a surprised pause, followed by triumphant shouts in Arabic from several thousand mourners: "There is no God but God. God is Great." Hundreds of fists stabbed the air in delight.The news that Arok Thon Arok, a civil-war leader from the south who signed a peace deal with the government last year, had become a Muslim astonished no one more than his family.

Unlike the other six bodies, which were laid out at the official farewell ceremony in white winding-sheets, each covered by the national flag, Arok Thon Arok's corpse was in a coffin.

When the cortege reached the Muslim cemetery, his family demanded the coffin back. "There was quite a heated debate before they released it to be taken for Christian burial," a family friend said later.

The macabre tug of war was still a talking-point the next day in the dust bowl of refugee camps on the outskirts of Khartoum and its sister city, Omdurman, the home of thousands of Christians who have fled north to escape the war.

Most of them describe Arok and the handful of other southern Sudanese who signed the peace deal as "opportunists." But they regard the attempt to present him as a Muslim, even if in death, as another example of the pressure for conversion which has grown in Sudan since the National Islamic Front took power in an army coup in 1989.

"You can never get a job in Khartoum unless you become a Muslim," said Philip Makuac, headmaster of a school supported by the Roman Catholic church. "And it's not just a question of saying it. They make you pray with them."

Makuac was recently told that his school would have to close before the end of March so that government officials could do a survey. "They said we could move somewhere else, but every time I ask, they never say where," he said.

Just over 1,000 children attend the school in a settlement called Angola. Located in what 12 years ago was untouched desert, the houses and school are built with bricks of sand, straw and water.

The school abides by the Islamic regime's rules. Girls wear headscarves and sit across the aisle from boys. The teaching is in Arabic. English - once the lingua franca - is not taught before the children reach their teens, and even then its use is restricted.

But the government still isn't satisfied. In the past three years, 10 other schools have been closed in the area, often by being bulldozed without warning. Unofficial churches have met the same fate.

Although the tide of conversion began under previous governments, it has accelerated since the Front took power. Africans complain of the ban on alcohol and public dancing.

They say official hostility has increased in the past five years as more refugees have fled north. Northern Arabs fear they may become permanent settlers, although most Southerners say they want to return when peace comes.

Tension between a native and an immigrant community is not unusual, particularly because the non-Arab population of Khartoum and Omdurman has grown from about 1 percent to 30 percent in 15 years. But neither side reports ethnic violence by ordinary citizens.

The wave of anti-African pressure seems government-promoted rather than a reflection of grass-roots prejudice. Officials are willing to give jobs to Africans who convert. Many traffic police are African, and Africans can become officers in the army.

The policy of conversion is designed to assimilate rather than create apartheid. Psychologically, however, it is having the opposite effect.

Last year's peace agreement described Sudan as a "multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society." But the gap between word and deed is wide.

"They are using the TV to make propaganda about a united Sudan," said another headmaster, Elias Wandu Gu. "But in a referendum tomorrow we would all vote for independence."

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service