“Unlike a natural disaster, we know exactly when this referendum is scheduled to take place. So we have to prepare the people for this. We can't stand by and let another humanitarian catastrophe of this size unfold– anywhere in the world, particularly in Africa.”
Griffin recalled that throughout Advent of 2010, Church leaders had continually sought to “appeal to people for calm and patience, not for a return to violence.” He described these messages as “extremely important in giving people an alternate vision (other) than an automatic return to war,” to build confidence that the southern Sudanese “can pursue their rights and self-determination non-violently.”
While a return to civil war is the worst-case scenario, it is not the only possibility that Sudanese leaders and international observers fear. The government in Khartoum has recently indicated it will seek to solidify its Muslim identity, through an increased use of Sharia law, in the event of a southern secession. Popular outrage could also turn against ethnic and religious “southerners” in the north.
Through direct diplomacy and international advocacy, the Sudanese bishops have sought “guarantees of security, not only to the rights of people in the north, but their physical security,” Griffin noted. Such guarantees are urgently necessary, because there are “currently no protection forces whatsoever for the one-and-a-half to two-million ethnically-identified southerners, living in the north.”
In the absence of such protection, huge numbers of people –around 2,000 a day, Griffin estimated– are migrating from the north to the south, which may be severely unprepared to handle the influx of refugees.
Again, the local Church –in collaboration with agencies such as Catholic Relief Services and Caritas– will have to provide whatever accommodation it can, stepping in where the government cannot.
“Until there's a strong civil society, I think much of that falls on the Church,” Griffin said. He reflected that the southern Sudanese administration has faced tremendous challenges in “moving from a rebel guerrilla movement, to a centralized democracy” in only five years.
Some observers believe the south has not handled such transitions well enough to take the more radical step of independence. But Church leaders, who know the southern administration's deficiencies from experience, have judged that the independence vote must nevertheless take place.
The referendum is, among other things, a central condition in the 2005 peace agreement between the north and south– such that it must take place for that treaty's peace process to continue. “There are no guarantees that the people of southern Sudan will be able to move forward peacefully and successfully,” Griffin acknowledged. But under the peace treaty, “they have every right to try.”
“People feel that they have exhausted any meaningful efforts at unity,” he said. “The people of southern Sudan have, in their hearts and minds, turned that corner. They see themselves as a free and independent people, and they're waiting to assert that freedom and that independence.”
Assuming the week-long referendum's results are clear and legitimate, they will not actually take full effect until July of 2011. Whatever the outcome, Griffin said, “we do know that Sudan will be dramatically different” after Jan. 9.
(Story continues below)
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“Not knowing what's going to happen obligates us to prepare for the worst,” he said, “and that's exactly what the Sudanese Church and (international) Church leadership have been doing now for quite some time.”