Whether chattel slavery exists since 1983 on a massive scale in Sudan once was a subject of hot debate, but no longer. Its foul presence has by now been confirmed by such white-shoe institutions as the U.S. State Department, U.N. Special Rapporteurs, and Amnesty International.
The complicity of the militant Islamic government in Sudan has also been established. It dispatches armed militias to terrorize and subjugate non-Muslim communities in the predominantly Christian southern Sudan. This is jihad in the raw, the extending of Muslim rule.
Fortunately, starting in the early 1990s, Sudanese revolted by these practices - Muslim and non-Muslim – joined together and established mechanisms to free the slaves. Retrievers usually purchase the slaves for less than US$33 in local currency). Then, in an often harrowing journey, they guide the slaves back to the south and their home regions.
To encourage this "underground railroad," Christian Solidarity International (www.csi-int.org), a small human rights organization, in 1995 began redeeming those slaves – that is, purchasing them from the retrievers and immediately freeing them. CSI and its main partner, the American Anti-Slavery Group (www.iabolish.com), have raised sufficient funds from private donors in the West to free thousands of slaves.
Americans, it turns out, instinctively responded. Worshippers in churches and synagogues prayed. School children raised funds. Black civil rights leaders and white conservatives went to jail for acts of civil disobedience.
This magnanimous response is not entirely surprising, for it fits a longstanding Judeo-Christian tradition of paying a ransom for slaves when no other practical way exists to secure their liberty. Two Roman Catholic orders (Trinitarians and Mercedores) were established specifically to free Christian slaves. In the Jewish tradition, redeeming captives is a higher duty than feeding the hungry. Many American slaves, including the abolitionist Fredrick Douglass, were redeemed from bondage. Sudan's only canonized saint, Mother Bakhita, herself was a redeemed slave.
This distinguished history might lead one to think redeeming slaves in Sudan is uncontroversial. One would be wrong. Khartoum, joined by many other Muslim governments, has managed to put the slave redeemers on the defensive by accusing them of defaming Islam and of other charges.
European states, with their wide interests in the Muslim countries, view this campaign to redeem Sudanese slaves as a potential threat to those interests. The U.S. government behaves marginally better it too finds the moral imperative of freeing slaves at odds with its other interests in Sudan (gathering intelligence on militant Islam, access to increasingly important oil supplies, acquiescence to a military campaign against Iraq).
Washington therefore takes a dim view of slave redemption, preferring a laudable, but still unimplemented peace plan that aims at transforming Sudan into a bastion of democracy. Thus, a U.S. government-financed commission of "international eminent persons" recently found that, "As a matter of principle, no person holding another who has been abducted or enslaved should be paid to secure that person's release."
This opposition to the slave redemption effort rests on two main criticisms. UNICEF claims that redemptions enlarge the market for slaves and unwittingly encourage their trade. A 1999 Atlantic Monthly article, "The False Promise of Slave Redemption," suggests widespread fraud by the retrievers and those claiming to be slaves.
So far, the critics have failed to make their case. The UN's own independent special rapporteur on Sudan, Gerhart Baum, acknowledges that slave raiding has diminished. And those spreading rumors of fraud have yet to identify a single false slave or false retriever connected to CSI or other reputable redeemers, just as they failed to provide a consistent explanation just how this supposed hoax is carried out.
The fact is, while Sudan's "underground railroad" has become an embarrassment to those unwilling to help Sudan's slaves, it still provides the best hope of freedom for some of the world's most wretched humans. It deserves wide support.
And although Sudan's slaves may seem a world apart, ultimately they are kin to the other victims of jihad in such places as Manhattan, Algiers, Jerusalem, and Kashmir. Militant Islam is staging a global jihad and the answer to it ultimately must also be global.
 Report of the International Eminent Persons Group, Slavery, Abduction and Forced Servitude in Sudan, May 22, 2002, p.14. http://www.state.gov/p/af/rls/rpt/10445.htm.
 July 1999.