.- Bishop Santo Loku Pio Doggale joined his brother prelates from South Sudan and Sudan for a time of rest and prayer in Rome last week, during which they were able to discuss key issues the two countries face, including decades of internal conflict and war.
South Sudan, which won its independence from Sudan in 2011, has endured its own civil war for more than two years, since a power struggle erupted between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, who was accused by the president of attempting a coup.
The only solution to ongoing conflicts in the area is to “put an end to this violence by stopping the war,” Bishop Santo, auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Juba, told CNA in an interview. “The bishops are asking for true support for the suffering people in Sudan and in South Sudan.”
He said pressure must be applied to the governments of both Sudan and South Sudan, that they might put their peoples’ interests over political agendas.
“The people should be put first, and that’s the only way that this pressure should go on, so that we achieve peace in both countries,” the bishop said, explaining that to make peace only in South Sudan without doing so in their northern neighbor “will not be a viable peace.”
This week South Sudan missed a deadline to create a transitional government, which was part of a peace deal made in August 2015. Both sides accuse each other of violating the deal. Two months after the peace agreement was made, Kiir decreed that the country's 10 states were to be replaced with 28 states, a move by opposition leaders and international players.
The bishops of Sudan and South Sudan were invited to Rome for a time of rest and prayer by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
The Jan. 11-21 spiritual retreat included a private audience with Pope Francis, and provided an opportunity for the bishops to discuss the various challenges both countries face, which range from war and poverty to catechetical and clerical formation.
Sudan has been the scene of nearly continuous civil war since it gained independence in 1956. Many of the initial problems were caused by corruption in the government, which led to the political, economic, and religious marginalization of the country’s peripheries.
The Second Sudanese Civil War ended in 2005, and eventually resulted in the secession of South Sudan in 2011. However, tensions between the two countries remain, primarily surrounding border issues and oil.
The conflict has led to serious human rights violations, crimes against humanity, and a severe humanitarian crisis in Sudan’s southern regions of Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, which are among the hardest-hit by fighting.
Although South Sudan is now independent from Sudan, the two countries share an episcopal conference, the operation of which was also touched on in the discussions between the South Sudanese and Sudanese bishops and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
In their meeting with Pope Francis last week, each bishop had the opportunity to explain the situation of their own local Church, Bishop Santo said.
“Pope Francis was very delighted to receive us,” he said. “Of course he is the father of the Church, our father, so we felt at home; the meeting was warm.”
One of the most serious problems both Sudan and South Sudan face is the humanitarian crisis brought about by their years of war and internal conflict.
“Right now we have people suffering in South Sudan and war in South Sudan,” Bishop Santo said. “Displaced people move to Sudan, and then displaced people move from Sudan to South Sudan, so we have crossroads of displaced people in both countries suffering from the political elite who don’t take their people in heart.”
The majority of issues the country faces are political problems “that have been created by the ruling elites in all Sudan,” making life difficult for both Christians and Muslims alike, he said.
In the beginning, war “was created by this political elite, using fundamental ideologies in order to make life difficult,” the bishop said, explaining that while the situation has somewhat improved since South Sudan’s 2011 secession, “the political war is still in place.”
The South Sudanese Civil War has been characterized as having both political and ethnic dimensions, and it is estimated that thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced from their homes since the violence began.
This war “is what the bishops are praying should come to the end sooner or later because the suffering is too much,” Bishop Santo said.
He offered thanks to the international organizations assisting in the humanitarian crisis on the ground in conflict areas.
Many humanitarian workers “risk their lives, they leave their countries, they go down to help us,” but at the same time are blocked by the government from getting the aid to those who need it, the bishop said, noting that at times they are even harassed “in carrying out this noble humanitarian task.”
He made an appeal to the governments of both Sudan and South Sudan to drop political interests and help with the crisis “so that aid can reach those in need.”
“This is very urgent and it is needed now, because if the people are cut off, (if) they lack medicines, they lack water, they lack food, many of them will die.”
With water points far and hard to get to as the hot season approaches, the need is becoming even more dire, the bishop said, adding that “if this conflict continues in the dry season it’s going to affect millions and millions of people.”
“So we continue to appeal that the international community. Most urgently we would like to see that these people are safe. Once they are safe and protected then they will need the basic necessities of life.”
Bishop Santo drew specific attention to the need for education for displaced children, who are particularly vulnerable and “who are not part of this war, but it is brought to them. So this is very, very urgent and very urgently needed now more than before in both countries.”
According to a recent report from Unicef South Sudan has the highest proportion of children unable to attend school, at 51 percent.
Many youth in Sudan and South Sudan have left and joined terrorist groups in neighboring countries such as Chad and the Central African Republic. Given the political situation and the war, it's very difficult for young people to find opportunities for education and a better life, the bishop said.
“Therefore when the extremists came to Sudan, especially, they offered chances and these young people embraced these chances and began to go into this violence.”
As the bishops return to their respective dioceses to face the looming challenges, Bishop Santo said he is grateful to have had the time to pray and to discuss the issues. He offered his thanks to the Pope and Cardinal Filoni for “such a cordial response” to the problems at hand in both Sudan and South Sudan: “We are taking back home a lot of memories and blessings.”
“The Holy Mother Church stands with the suffering people of South Sudan … and therefore it is a great affection to each and every one of us,” he said.
“So we will continue to carry our responsibilities and our duties in order to continue building the Church as God wants it throughout our times.”