.- Christian leaders in South Sudan have responded to new violence with a call for peace and reconciliation, urging their countrymen to reject efforts to sow division along ethnic lines.
“This should not be turned into an ethnic problem. Sadly, on the ground it is developing into tribalism. This must be defused urgently before it spreads,” church leaders in Juba said in a Dec. 17 message, according to Aid to the Church in Need.
The South Sudan Council of Churches, an interdenominational Christian group, on Dec. 18 similarly warned that despite reports of ethnic violence, the conflict should not be considered an ethnic conflict at its root. They implored the Dinka and Nuer communities not to see each other as enemies.
“We are concerned about the reports of abuse, harassment and killing of individual citizens based on their ethnic affiliation,” the churches’ council said. “These are happening and witnessed for the last three days. Soldiers are asking civilians to identify themselves by tribes and we cannot accept to be identified by our tribes as we are all South Sudanese. We condemn such acts of abuse and hope that no more human lives should be lost.”
Both groups condemned the violence and characterized the conflict as “political differences” within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement Party.
Fighting broke out in the South Sudan capital of Juba in mid-December following a power struggle between the country’s president, Salva Kiir, and former vice president Riek Machar, the BBC News reports. At least 1,000 people have been killed, with some killings reportedly being targeted by ethnicity.
President Kiir is from the Dinka ethnicity and former vice president Machar is of the Nuer ethnicity. The president dismissed Machar from office in July.
Almost 200,000 people have been displaced and many lack shelter, clean water and sanitation. A state of emergency was declared in the nation on Jan. 1.
There are increasing tensions in the rebel-held city of Bor in Jonglei state and Bentu, in Unity state, which is also rebel-held. Military build-ups have prompted fears of increased fighting.
Peace talks between the factions were set to begin Jan. 3 in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s foreign minister Tedros Adhanom said initial talks between mediators and the warring factions were “fruitful,” the BBC reports.
Church leaders in Juba condemned the violence and expressed their condolences for the victims and their families. They invoked the biblical story of two women feuding over the custody of a child before King David. One woman agreed to cut the boy in two rather than lose possession of him to his true mother.
They called for reconciliation between the political leaders, offering themselves as mediators.
They urged security forces to show “restraint and responsibility” and to respect civilians. They urged the government, the United Nations and NGOs to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced people, including food and water.
They prayed for “the strength and courage to bring peace, reconciliation and healing to our new nation.”
The South Sudan churches’ council called for “speedy justice” for criminal acts but also “reconciliation for political differences.”
“We appeal to our political leaders to refrain from hate speeches that may incite and escalate the violence. We urge to initiate dialogues and resolve issues amicably,” the council said. “We are gathered, united and speaking in one voice that peace and reconciliation must prevail in our country.”
South Sudan became an independent country in 2011 after decades of conflict with Sudan to its north.
That conflict also included infighting among some South Sudanese. In 1991, Machar’s split from the existing rebel movement sparked fighting along tribal lines that caused the massacre of 2,000 people in the town of Bor.