.- The bishops of South Sudan issued a call last Thursday for dialogue between the warring factions in the country, and international humanitarian aid to alleviate the famine affecting so many in their nation.
“Those who have the ability to make changes for the good of our people have not taken heed of our previous pastoral messages … we intend to meet face to face not only with the President but with the vice presidents, ministers, members of parliament, opposition leaders and politicians, military officers from all sides, and anyone else who we believe has the power to change our country for the better,” the South Sudanese bishops said in a Feb. 23 pastoral message to the faithful and people of South Sudan.
“We intend to meet with them not once, but again and again, for as long as is necessary, with the message that we need to see action, not just dialogue for the sake of dialogue.”
In their meetings with government and opposition leaders, the bishops will take as a model the importunate widow of Christ's parable, they emphasized.
South Sudan has been embroiled in civil war since December 2013, when violence erupted in the capital city of Juba and quickly spread throughout the country. The war has is being fought between forces loyal to the country’s president and those loyal to its former vice president, and is largely drawn along ethnic lines. Peace agreements have been short-lived, with violence quickly resuming.
The bishops' message came at the conclusion of a three-day plenary assembly together with the apostolic nuncio to South Sudan. They said they received “disturbing reports from all seven of our dioceses spanning the whole country.”
“The civil war, which we have frequently described as having no moral justification whatsoever, continues. Despite our calls to all parties, factions and individuals to STOP THE WAR, nevertheless killing, raping, looting, displacement, attacks on churches and destruction of property continue all over the country. In some towns there is calm, but the absence of gunfire does not mean peace has come. In other towns, civilians are effectively trapped inside the town due to insecurity on the surrounding roads.”
The bishops are particulary concerned that alongside fighting between government and opposition forces, “much of the violence is being perpetrated by government and opposition forces against civilians.”
“There seems to be a perception that people in certain locations or from certain ethnic groups are with the other side, and thus they are targeted by armed forces. They are killed, raped, tortured, burned, beaten, looted, harassed, detained, displaced from their homes and prevented from harvesting their crops … Even when they have fled to our churches or to UN camps for protection, they are still harassed by security forces,” they lamented.
They pointed to the famine facing more than 100,000 South Sudanese, saying “there is no doubt” it is “man-made, due to insecurity and poor economic management.”
“Hunger, in turn, creates insecurity, in a vicious circle in which the hungry man, especially if he has a gun, may resort to looting to feed himself and his family. Millions of our people are affected, with large numbers displaced from their homes and many fleeing to neighbouring countries, where they are facing appalling hardships in refugee camps.”
Millions have become refugees or are internally displaced, and some 40 percent of the population is dependent on international aid.
The bishops expressed concern that some government officials seem to be suspicious of the Church.
“In some areas the Church has been able to mediate local peace deals, but these can easily be undermined if government officials are removed and replaced with hardliners who do not welcome Church efforts for peace. Priests, sisters and other personnel have been harassed.”
They detailed that Catholic radio programs have been removed, and churches burnt down. In May 2016, a Slovak nun, Sister Veronika Terézia Racková, was killed by militants; a physician, she had been working at a hospital in Yei.
The bishops also noted that on Feb. 14 “security officers attempted to close down our Catholic bookshop. They harassed our personnel and confiscated several books … We hear people saying that 'the Church is against the government'.”
“We wish to inform all of you that the Church is not for or against anyone, neither the government nor the opposition,” the bishops stressed. “We are FOR all good things - peace, justice, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, dialogue, the rule of law, good governance – and we are AGAINST evil - violence, killing, rape, torture, looting, corruption, arbitrary detention, tribalism, discrimination, oppression – regardless of where they are and who is practising them. We are ready to dialogue with and between the government and the opposition at any time.”
The bishops called on the international community to act to alleviate the country's humanitarian crisis, and said they will continue to make their people's extreme hardships better known across the world.
Speaking to the people of South Sudan, the bishops said: “We call upon you to remain spiritually strong, and to exercise restraint, tolerance, forgiveness and love. Work for justice and peace; reject violence and revenge. We are with you … We wish to give you hope that you are not abandoned and that we are working to resolve the situation at many different levels.”
The bishops concluded by announcing that Pope Francis hopes to visit their country later this year.
“The Holy Father is deeply concerned about the sufferings of the people of South Sudan. You are already in his prayers, but his coming here would be a concrete symbol of his fatherly concern and his solidarity with your suffering. It would draw the attention of the world to the situation here. We call upon you to begin a programme of prayer for this visit to go ahead. Let us use the coming months fruitfully to begin the transformation of our nation.”