With independence very likely in south Sudan, one Sudanese bishop is looking to the future. He warns of the possibility of “humanitarian disaster” in the south and “real persecution” for Christians in the north following the upcoming election.
On Sunday there will be a referendum to create an independent state of semi-autonomous southern Sudan. World governments and experts on the region predict a landslide "yes" vote, giving autonomy to the area which has been united for more than 50 years.
The Jan. 9 - 15 vote comes five years after a landmark peace agreement ended more than 20 years of civil war in the African nation with the largest land area.
Autonomy will bring its trials, however, as Bishop Macram Max Gassis of El Obeid told Fides news agency in a Jan. 8 report.
The Diocese of El Obeid is in South Central Sudan and encompasses the Darfur region, the site of ongoing conflict and humanitarian catastrophe. Bishop Gassis’ jurisdiction borders the southern region included in the vote.
"After the euphoria of independence we will have to face the harsh reality of the thousands and thousands of southern Sudanese who have returned to the South and have nothing," he said.
Truckloads of hopeful people have been returning from the North for weeks in anticipation of the vote.
But the southern Sudan they find has little to welcome them. Dropped off "in the middle of nowhere" without any vital supplies or even bedrolls, he said, they find an infrastructure that is already inadequate for the existing population.
Bishop Gassis warned of the consequences if all those of South Sudanese stock return to their roots.
"If you think that just in the area of Khartoum, the capital of united Sudan, there are about four million southern Sudanese that could return to the South, you understand that we are facing a potential humanitarian disaster," said the bishop.
He explained that a five-year window before a vote for independence was provided for in the 2005 peace agreement precisely to give the Khartoum government time to promote unity.
"It has become the opposite," Bishop Gassis said. "It has not adopted a policy that recognizes the needs of the diverse populations that make up this country, which is multi-confessional, but continued to insist on the application of Sharia."
Sharia is the Muslim rule of law, installed by then-Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiry in 1983. Seventy percent of the nation’s 43 million inhabitants profess Sunni Islam while just five percent are Christians who are divided between the capital and South Sudan.
Independence in the South could thus be devastating for Catholicism in the northern region, where the enormous Diocese of El Obeid is located. The 150,000 Catholics in the diocese represent less than two percent of the total population.
"What will become of the Church in the north, once Sudan is divided into a Christian and animist southern state, and in a largely Muslim northern state?" asked the bishop.
His fear is that Catholics and Copts who remain in the region risk being singled out. A system where the Sharia law is interpreted in the strictest sense, said Bishop Gassis, could demote them to be "second class citizens, or worse, becoming victims of real persecution."
An additional Fides editorial published on the same day cited experts' analysis that independence for South Sudan could open a "Pandora's Box" of similar referenda in the rest of Africa who have been similarly engaged in war and oppression. "The greatest risk" in such cases in the continent, said Fides, "is that of an instrumental use of religion to sustain pro-independence projects."
Delegations of diplomats from all over the world including one from the U.S., led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are on the ground in Sudan to monitor the election. Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of Durban, South Africa is at the head of a representation from the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference as part of the All African Conference of Churches, reported L'Osservatore Romano.