WASHINGTON -- Thousands of people rallied yesterday on the National Mall as celebrities, politicians and religious leaders put the ethnic and political conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur in the nation's spotlight.
It was a gathering of 164 humanitarian groups -- including about 250 people with the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition -- Darfuri refugees and faith leaders.
Celebrities such as George Clooney, who has recently visited Sudan, hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, and former National Basketball Association star Manute Bol, a native of Sudan, urged the participants to "Save Darfur," the message carried on the white and green T-shirts worn by many in the crowd.
Other celebrities included Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.; House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California; Olympic speedskating champion Joey Cheek, who gave his bonus money to the cause; and Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington.
Stop Genocide rallies were also launched in Chicago, San Francisco and 15 other cities. A parallel campaign, A Million Voices for Darfur, has been working to bring 1 million postcards to the White House to urge the Bush administration to support a multinational peace-keeping force for Darfur.
During the rally, news spread from Africa that Sudanese rebels rejected a proposal to end the bloodshed in Darfur, throwing into question the outcome of yet another series of negotiations to put a stop to fighting that has left tens of thousands of people dead.
The rebels called for changes to the deal hours before an African Union deadline -- and after the Sudanese government indicated it would accept the proposal.
In Washington, Mr. Clooney showed up three hours before he was to speak and was mobbed by onlookers and reporters.
"Thank you for being out here," he said, "and coming to express your outrage."
It's going to take a "bunch of people," said the actor, to bring attention to the genocide.
Mr. Clooney and his father, Nick, a former television anchorman, interviewed families in Sudanese refugee camps.
Darfur, a Texas-sized region of Sudan, has galvanized growing support as the violence there continues. In that region, militias backed by Sudan's government have killed at least 180,000 civilians and driven 2.5 million from their homes since 2003.
"It is the capital of suffering," said Elie Weisel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner whose writings documented his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. "We have to gather and tell the victims they are not alone. Silence only helps the oppressor."
The crowd on the Washington Mall showed that a growing chorus of voices is speaking out and urging involvement.
What demonstrators want is more involvement from U.S. and United Nations peacekeepers to join forces with the under-equipped African Union troops already wrestling with the situation. They want unfettered access for humanitarian and relief groups and a cease-fire.
Finding peace has been elusive.
In recent days, Sudan's president, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir, rejected a proposal to allow U.N. peacekeepers into the Darfur region to help quell the violence.
On the Mall, it was evident that Christian groups have grown interested as news spread that Arab marauders were enslaving Christians in the south of Sudan.
Jewish activism spiked when the Bush administration liked the crisis to a genocide.
Jewish leaders are sensitive to the memory of the Holocaust and everyone wants to avoid a repeat of the 1994 disaster in Rwanda, where 800,000 Tutsis were killed by their countrymen, the Hutus, in three months.
Not since the Rwanda genocide has the world seen such slaughter, rape, starvation and displacement.
"It is happening again; it is another Rwanda," said Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier who save 1,000 of his countrymen and who heroics were made into the film "Hotel Rwanda."
The cry for it to never happen again is an "abused word," said Mr. Rusesabinga, because the same international community is not willing to do something.
"Africa is forgotten continent," said Mr. Rusesabagina. "What happened in Rwanda happened while the whole world watched and now it is exactly what is going on today in the Sudan."
African-American support has been slow, but rally participants said it was growing.
Dr. Gloria White-Hammond is an African American who has visited the region seven times to obtain the freedom for 10,000 women and children during the two decades of civil war. She is also the national chair of A Million Voices for Darfur campaign.
The Rev. John L. McCullough, CEO of the Church World Service, said that more prominent African-American ministers are getting involved.
"That's good," said Pittsburgher Ronnie McCray, 51, of Spring Hill as he walked into the shade near the stage on the Mall. "Sometimes it seems that if it doesn't impact us personally, we don't care."
The struggle in Sudan pits mostly Muslim vs. Muslim and black Arab vs. black Africa.
"Most of us can easily recognize racism in others," said Imam Rashied Omar, a Muslim cleric at the University of Notre Dame. "It is difficult to acknowledge that it exists within our own Muslim ranks. We need to purify and heal our souls."
The growing crisis is rooted in the clashes of some 90 ethnic groups that have occupied the sprawling land of Sudan for centuries.
The conflicts intensified when the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1956 and northerners clashed with southerners and herdsmen against farmers.
The conflicts are further complicated because most people involved are so similar: They are black, speak Arabic and follow Islam. Over time, disputes over customs, languages and regions broadened to include feuds over oil, land and politics.
"I'm here to learn," said Mr. McCray, who found out about the crisis through a workshop at his church a year ago. "I want to know how to stay involved locally and possibly help other people sign up, too."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Ervin Dyer can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1410.