Pope Benedict XVI is sending a papal delegation to the Republic of South Sudan to mark the east African country’s independence tomorrow, July 9. The delegation will be headed Cardinal John Njue of Nairobi, Kenya.
“The Holy See …invites the international community to support Sudan and the new independent State,” Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., said in a statement issued July 8.
The statement urged northern and southern Sudanese to engage in “frank, peaceful and constructive dialogue” to achieve “just and equitable solutions” to all the questions surrounding the historic secession of South Sudan. The Church also hoped that the process will result in “peace, freedom and development.”
South Sudan’s independence is the end result of a 2005 peace deal that concluded more than two decades of civil war between the Muslim Arab-dominated north and the mainly Christian and animist south. The split was ratified earlier this year in a referendum that saw over 98 percent of southern Sudanese vote for secession.
“With this celebration of independence we are saying goodbye to the past and embracing a new thing, without fighting, a new future of reconciliation, solidarity and forgiveness,” said Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako of Khartoum, North Sudan, in a July 8 interview with Vatican Radio.
Cardinal Wako explained how this evening will witness people across North and South Sudan gathering in towns and villages to build bonfires and hold prayer vigils and fasting. At dawn the bonfires will then be lit and the fast will be broken.
“The bishops’ conference have planned a religious celebration – not necessarily on the same day. But in all diocese there will be celebrations with dance and song in thanksgiving to God and the acknowledgment of the good that those who have worked for peace have achieved in the country,” the cardinal said.
The Catholic Church played a key part in bringing peace to the war-torn region. This included attempts to broker dialogue at the highest levels as well as supporting ordinary people on the ground.
“It did a lot to convince people that no solution would be found by violence and conflict,” said Cardinal Wako.
Those efforts involved trying to get those doing the fighting to reflect upon their moral behavior while also making sure those most affected by war were protected, fed and educated. “We opened a lot of schools during the war, which at least occupied large part of the young people, rather than their taking up arms.”
But out of all the Church did, it was women who played the most crucial role, Cardinal Wako said. He explained, “we recruited women in order to talk and convince people in the villages of the need for peace.”
“And we also encouraged literacy among women, we challenged them to do something constructive, the mothers and sisters to help their men develop and become the building blocks of the future society in Sudan.”
In the same way the Catholic Church helped to end the war, it is now being asked to play a central role in building a lasting peace.
“The Churches are the only institutions really that cut across these tribal and ethnic divisions, and also the social divisions,” said Rob Rees of the English Catholic-Aid agency CAFOD told Vatican Radio.
“If you take the Catholic Bishops Conference, for example, there are nine principle ethnic groups that are represented by the bishops.”
“The bishops all get along with each other, obviously. They can demonstrate that unity between the different ethnic groups is possible.”