Catholics working for peaceful birth of South Sudan
By Katherine Veik
Father Joseph Otto of St. Theresa Parish in Magwi, Southern Sudan says hello to some children. Photo by Karen Kasmauski for CRS
Father Joseph Otto of St. Theresa Parish in Magwi, Southern Sudan says hello to some children. Photo by Karen Kasmauski for CRS

.- Local and international Catholic organizations are working to ensure a peaceful transition to independence for South Sudan on July 9, after two decades of struggle that killed or displaced over six million people.

South Sudan's people will be “free to build a society the way they want to according to their own vision,” said Bishop John H. Ricard, a representative for the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace, speaking to CNA from the southern capital Juba on July 8.

Thousands are expected to attend the independence day ceremonies, including northern Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir. On the morning of July 9, he will begin the celebration to the tune of the new Sudan National Anthem.

After the anthem, South Sudan's proclamation of independence will be read, and dignitaries from China, the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development will give speeches.

The independence celebrations will run through the evening of July 12. Dan Griffin, a Sudan adviser for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services said the Sudanese people are feeling a cautious joy.

“I find the Sudanese very mindful that not everyone is free,” Griffin said in a July 8 interview with CNA. “It's like the apartheid fell, but only fell in pieces.”

“You talk to people and they know that the violence is ongoing,” Griffin said, addressing conflict in the Nuba Mountains region of Southern Kordofan. The area is wedged in between the North and the seceding South.

A May agreement placed 4,200 Ethiopian peacekeepers in the region, though the situation remains “tense and volatile,” the U.N. said on July 5.

The U.N. reports that 2,000 people have been killed and 300,000 displaced in 2011, due to the fighting. The north has been accused of ethnic cleansing in the Nuba Mountains, a situation that has been described as a “new Darfur.”

Griffin said the Church and Sudanese leaders are working with the U.N. to negotiate access to the violence-ridden areas, especially the Nuba mountains.

The violence has reinforced the importance of international involvement in South Sudan's move for independence.

“Our purpose is to do more than celebrate this milestone,” wrote United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in a July 7 New York Times editorial heralding South Sudanese independence. “It is to highlight the international obligation to stand by the people of South Sudan as they seek to build a stable, strong and ultimately prosperous nation.”

The secretary general warned that the “last thing a new nation needs is a celebration as it springs into existence, only to then be forgotten until the next crisis.”

The new nation faces tremendous challenges of its own, along with the difficulties of establishing peaceful diplomacy with the neighboring country it once fought against.

Lisa Grande, the leader of the United Nations' humanitarian efforts in South Sudan, described the new nation “one of the most underdeveloped on the planet” in an interview with the Associated Press.

South Sudan has a literacy rate of 17 percent and suffers from extremely poor physical infrastructure.

“Someone who could be my daughter has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing school,” said Grande. “That says everything you need to know about Southern Sudan.”

Bishop Ricard said the Church recognizes the “enormous problems and challenges Sudan will face,” but also the new republic's potential “to forge a future that will be filled with hope.”

“Independence is not in the poverty, suffering and conflict here, but it gives us an opportunity to address their root causes,” Griffin said.

He stressed that the South Sudanese people are “putting the war behind them and focusing on their future.”

“They can look at more long-term programming and development without the fear of being constantly being moved back to square one because of displacement, violence and bombing,” he noted.

“There's a sense that we have our own wings and we can fly,” Bishop Ricard said. “We can develop and live up to the potential we have as a nation and a people.”

The bright potential of the new republic has been contagious, causing a massive influx in southern refugees returning from the North and bordering countries. Foreigners in the capital city say the streets are filled.

“This is the place for them to be,” Bishop Ricard said. “They can finally return home with some degree of assurance that they can stay home and find a job … prosperity, and a good life.”

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