Luc Picard, Catholic Relief Services development adviser, visits a farmers’ market in South Sudan
Luc Picard, Catholic Relief Services development adviser, visits a farmers’ market in South Sudan. The agency has developed the Diocesan Capacity Building Initiative, which works closely with the dioceses in the country to help them engage in peace-building activities. Photo by Father Robert F. Ippolito

Shouts of great joy erupted July 9, 2011, as the citizens of the world’s newest nation, the Republic of South Sudan, celebrated Independence Day.

The country held a referendum a year ago this month to determine the support for an independent nation after 21 years of continuous war. More than 98 percent voted in favor of the referendum.

It was a long time coming.

Sudan achieved independence from Great Britain on Jan. 1, 1956, with Khartoum as its capital. Great Britain had kept north and south Sudan united as one state with the result that the south, which is mostly Christian and animist, was politically and economically marginalized from the Arab and mostly Muslim north. This was evident in the formation of the new Sudanese government when only six out of 800 government positions went to southerners.

In August 1955, there was a mutiny in Torit, a small town in the south. The government’s response was swift and brutal and alienated southerners who took up arms in the first civil war (1955-1972).

The first attempt at peace was in the 1972 Addis Ababa Peace Agreement, mediated by the World Council of Churches and the All Africa Council of Churches, which provided regional autonomy for South Sudan. Jaafar Nimeiri had taken control of Sudan in a military coup in 1969. In 1985, he decided to revoke this autonomy and instituted Shariah law in the south.

Thus began the second civil war (1985-2006) which led to the formation of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) under the leadership of John Garang. More than 2 million people were killed and several million displaced.

Church’s role

Through all these years of struggle, the Catholic Church was a leading figure in the struggle for democracy in South Sudan. “The Church was the caretaker of the people,” said Bishop Santo Loku Pio, auxiliary bishop of Juba and a native of the capital city. “The Church was involved in the whole process, from caring for the people in the midst of war and of negotiations to bring about peace,” he added.                              

“The Church is the only institution that stayed with the people during the war,” said Luc Picard, a development adviser for Catholic Relief Services, the overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. CRS has been involved in South Sudan since the late 1970s and has maintained a full-time office in Juba since 1989.

It was a long and difficult war. All foreign missionaries were expelled in 1992, including the Comboni Missionaries. They were the pioneer missionaries of the Catholic Church in Sudan, arriving in 1870, and had built many Catholic communities in the south in the intervening years. They built up the Church and were very much defenders not only of the spiritual but also material welfare of the people. Their expulsion from Sudan left the Sudanese priests, few in number, to carry out a difficult task. Sister Anne, of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, recalls that when the SPLA was trying to capture Juba in 1992, there was much fighting and shelling. “The archbishop [Paulino Lukudu Loro of Juba] used to send his car out to pick up the dead and wounded. … He was keeping the faith of the people.”

He was such an outspoken protector of the people “that there was word that the soldiers had orders to kill the archbishop,” she added. But he survived. And so did the Church.

Children attend kindergarten class at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Juba, South Sudan
Children attend kindergarten class at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Juba, South Sudan. Photo by Father Robert F. Ippolito

Today, the task of the Catholic Church is now to rebuild and reconcile. “That is our primary goal,” says the Father Daniele Moschetti, provincial superior of the Comboni Missionaries in South Sudan. “We held a symposium in October that was titled ‘One Church from every tribe, tongue and people’ and it was attended by 700 people.” It was organized by the Catholic Church as a gift to the nation.

The two largest denominations in the country are the Catholic and Anglican Churches. The leaders of these two churches were active throughout the war, trying to find the solution to a lasting peace.

“All the time Church leaders were speaking about justice, they were also mediating. They would go to Nairobi and speak with rebel leaders, then they would go to Khartoum to speak to the government,” said Bishop Santo. While thousands were being killed, several Church leaders went to Europe and the United States to force Khartoum to the negotiating table.

Tribal conflicts

South Sudan is still very much a tribal society and this forms the basis of continued internal strife and killing.

“Recently, 650 people were killed in the province of Jonglei in a confrontation between the Lou Nuer and Murle (two rival communities),” said Chris Wake, a CRS country adviser who leads the CRS support for an initiative to support reconciliation. CRS has developed the Diocesan Capacity Building Initiative, which works closely with the nine dioceses in South Sudan to build up their capacity to engage in peace-building activities.

President Salva Kiir Mayardit, a Catholic himself, has called on all the churches to get involved in the reconciliation of the tribal conflicts.

There was another conflict a few months ago in the province of Eastern Equatoria between the Mahdy and Murle. Bishop Paride Taban, bishop emeritus of Torit, and Archbishop Daniel Deng of the Episcopal Church of Juba, were called to mediate and help solve the problem. When there are problems, “people want to see the bishop, not the politicians,” said Picard.

Cattle raiding is the spark that sets these tribes on fire. “They have reduced the Ten Commandments to eight,” said Bishop Santo. The fifth and seventh are gone. “The cows in that village belong to me, so I must kill those people and take my cows back. We have to change that mentality.”

Much remains left to do in building the nation of South Sudan The mentality that “I am a Dinka” or “I am a Nuer” has yet to become “I am Sudanese.”

“We must bring together all ethnic groups,” Father Moschetti told OSV. There were no paved roads in the country on Independence Day, though there is one now that runs almost to the border with Uganda, thanks to the United Nations. The majority of schools are still run by church groups. Illiteracy is 80 percent.

The task is formidable but the people want to succeed and with the help of the Catholic Church and agencies such CRS, they will.

Father Robert F. Ippolito is a member of the Missionaries of LaSalette and pastor of St. Brendan the Navigator Church in Shallotte, N.C. He recently wrote this article from Juba.