Church's role is critical in run-up to Sudan independence vote

Sudan Refugees CNA World Catholic News 1 3 2011 Refugees in southern Sudan

Sudan's Catholic bishops say their country “will never be the same again,” once a January 2011 referendum that could split Africa's largest country in two takes place. Leading up to the vote, the Sudanese Catholic Church is playing a central role in preparing the country for the vote and its possible consequences.

“This is a real case of the Church providing the vision,” said Dan Griffin, Catholic Relief Services' Sudan adviser. Griffin is the agency's main contact between its U.S. headquarters and agents on the ground in Sudan. In the run up to the referendum, he said, “the Church is leading the way, talking about a Sudan that doesn't exist yet – calling people to participate, and engage, in building a nation.” 

Most southern Sudanese are said to support full independence from the northern half of Africa's largest country. The ethnically- and religiously-divided nation fought two civil wars –from 1955 to 1972, and again between 1983 and 2005– that left an estimated 2.5 million people dead, and failed to resolve political disputes dating back more than a century.

Sudanese northerners, who are mostly Arab and Muslim, have long attempted to control the resource-rich south, particularly after Sudan gained independence from joint British and Egyptian rule in 1956.

These aspirations have often led to armed conflict with the south, where a myriad of non-Arabic tribes typically practice either Christianity or traditional native religions.

“Currently, the government in Khartoum (the capital) describes Sudan as a Muslim, Arabic country,” Griffin said. “The reality is, Sudan's far more diverse.” While some southern Sudanese factions have historically fought for the goal of a unified Sudan without Islamist rule, others have focused recently on achieving independence from the north, which they see as intractably committed to Sharia law.

Although religious differences have frequently fueled the conflict, Griffin pointed out that there were “multiple reasons” other than religion, for the historic division between the north and the south. The deeper conflict, he said, is “about power and powerlessness.” Currently, power is being retained and defined in Khartoum, but the other regions, “the peripheries of Sudan, (are) being excluded.”

While southern Sudan achieved a measure of political autonomy in a 2005 peace treaty, the region has not made comparable progress on many of its own internal problems. These include a serious lack of infrastructure, extreme poverty and illiteracy, and corruption –or even absence– of government at the local level. These conditions, Griffin said, have forced the Church into a leadership role.

“In many parts of southern Sudan,” he noted, “because of a long history of un-development and underdevelopment, the Church … is the last real vestige of civil society.” In parts of the south, the Church can communicate and work across ethnic and geographical boundaries more readily than southern Sudan's own autonomous government.

In such areas, it falls to the Church to “provide accurate, timely information about the referendum,” and also to build connections and trust between different elements of southern Sudanese society. In these areas, Griffin said, “the Church plays an immensely important role, because it's trusted by the people.”

Sudan's Catholic bishops have not taken a position on the question of full independence for the south. Rather, their priorities are to help voters understand the implications of their decision, and to ensure that the referendum takes place peacefully, fairly, and on schedule. The larger goal, Griffin said, was to make sure the vote and its results would not re-ignite historic conflicts.

At worst, the referendum's results could prompt a third Sudanese civil war– “far more lethal” than the first two, in Griffin's estimation, and “just as targeted against civilians.” Such a war, he predicted, would involve not only Sudan's north and south, but the nine neighboring countries, in what “could be the largest conventional war on the African continent.”

That result, in turn, could de-stabilize large portions of East Africa, immersing other countries in “proxy wars that are ignited and played out across Sudan.” This “worst-case scenario,” according to Griffin, “would make Somalia and Yemen look manageable by comparison.”

Church leaders, he said, have been “very mindful that this could happen,” and consider it their moral obligation to prevent a third civil war. “We've been able to get out and make a lot of interventions, in terms of emergency preparation, conflict mitigation, and peace training. We've been doing this now for more than a year, through the Church networks.”

“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.”

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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. 

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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.”