Tensions rise as Sudan prepares for independence vote

For the people of Sudan, the new year could bring independence or civil war, self-determination or tribal warfare, freedom or genocide on a scale far beyond what the world witnessed in the aftermath of the brutal massacre of 800,000 Rwandans in 1994. 

As the days count down to Sudan’s Jan. 9, 2011, referendum on independence for the southern portion of the African nation, the Catholic Church remains at the fore of an effort to wage peace in an atmosphere that seems destined for violence if the international community does not get involved. 

Imminent violence? 

Sudan is no stranger to violence. After gaining its independence from the United Kingdom and Egypt in 1956, the northeastern African country, the largest on the continent, underwent decades of political unrest and two civil wars, the latter of which left 2 million people dead and more than 4 million displaced. In 2005, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in an attempt to find some middle ground between the Muslim-dominated north and the Christian-dominated south. 

The CPA allotted five years for planning and dialogue before a referendum on the issue of independence, which many experts say southern Sudanese consider a foregone conclusion. However, the more industrialized north is opposed to the separation from the more rural south, which is rich in natural resources, mainly oil. 

“Unity with the north is not possible. … There is no way out. The chance that is given to the people of the south through this referendum is a God-given chance to restore their dignity and their right to exist as a people,” said Bishop Daniel Adwok Marko Kur, auxiliary bishop of Khartoum in northern Sudan. The bishop made the comments during a live video conference from the University of Notre Dame early last month. 

Bishop Kur was in the United States as a representative of the Sudanese Catholic Bishops’ Conference in order to make heard the Sudanese people’s “cry for justice and dignity” and to ask for assistance in ensuring that the upcoming referendum is not manipulated or rigged, a realistic fear in a country where there are already rumors that “ghost voters” are being registered in order to invalidate the January vote. Sixty percent of registered voters are required to cast a ballot in order to make the referendum valid. Experts expressed concern that monitors need to be in place now in order to prevent false registrations that will make it impossible to reach the requirement. 

“The dignity of the human person cannot be rigged by anybody, and the international community must say clearly, ‘Let these people go,’” Bishop Kur said, in reference to the southern Sudanese, who want their independence.  

John Ashworth, acting director of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference’s Denis Hurley Peace Institute, explained that the root causes of unrest in Sudan stem from two key issues: a “question of identity” due to the Arabic culture and Islamic religion’s attempt to “impose itself on the country,” and a concentration of power and resources in one small area that leaves other parts of the country “marginalized.” 

“Southerners are going to choose to secede. There’s no doubt. They are going to vote overwhelmingly for separation, but the government of Khartoum doesn’t want separation,” Ashworth said. “To southerners this vote is a formality. As far as they’re concerned, the decision has been made. This is just a process of informing the world.” 

Ashworth said that if the referendum is rigged, or the vote for secession fails, is delayed or invalidated, southerners are likely to secede unilaterally. “If secession doesn’t happen, we are warning that there is a very, very real danger. … It’s not often that we can give you the start date of a war,” he said at the Notre Dame video conference.

Prayers for peace 

Sudan, then, seems set on a crash course for disaster. No matter which way the referendum turns in January, the north and south could become embroiled in yet another civil war. But Catholic organizations — from Catholic Relief Services to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the Sudanese Catholic Bishops’ Conference — say violence can be averted if the international community gets involved, and if average Catholics in the United States and around the world take the time to learn about the issues, write to their representatives, and pray for a free and fair referendum. CRS has called on Catholics to join its “101 Days of Prayer” for Sudan, which began on Sept. 21, the International Day of Peace, and will continue until Jan. 1, 2011, World Day of Peace. 

“At the end of the Holocaust in Europe, the world vowed never again. After Rwanda, the world said, ‘Never again.’ Now is the time to raise our voices and to intervene in Sudan because ‘never again’ begins now,” said Dan Griffin, Sudan adviser for CRS, in a video produced by CRS and the USCCB as part of its “Catholics Confront Global Poverty” effort. 

Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., who heads the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, recently visited Sudan to assure the people there of the “support and solidarity” of the Church in the United States and to meet with U.S. and U.N. officials. 

“There’s a real danger for violence. I don’t think anyone knows for sure what’s going to happen,” he told OSV, explaining that little has been done to prepare for the January referendum since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005. No decisions have been made as to how the south’s oil wealth would be shared if secession occurs, or how to address the fact that the south is landlocked, or about the precarious situation in Darfur, which is in northern Sudan. There are also dangers, Bishop Hubbard explained, that even if the north does not declare war on the south, they could use surrogate forces to stir up trouble and exacerbate existing tribal differences in the south.

Strength in faith 

Despite uncertainties and fears of violence, Bishop Hubbard expressed hope that worldwide prayers for a free and fair election and international intervention through observers and monitors could not only help Sudan avoid violence but could plant the seeds for positive change.  

“For the people of the south, if there is a free and fair referendum, there is the same opportunity that we had in 1776 to create a new nation,” he said. 

Churches, especially the Catholic Church in Sudan, are working hard to help people “reflect upon what it means to be people who are peace builders and peace neighbors,” Bishop Hubbard said. “The Church there is trying to create an atmosphere and an environment where we can move forward in a nonviolent way. That provides a wonderful opportunity.” 

The Church plays a vital role in the lives of the southern Sudanese, offering basic necessities such as health care and education as well as spiritual and moral support in the face of ongoing conflict and struggle. 

“The churches — Anglican and Presbyterian and especially the Catholic Church — were the major institutions that stood in solidarity with the people throughout the war. They were there in the worst times and endured it with the people and are helping them make the transition to a more peaceful society,” Bishop Hubbard said. “I think the Church is the most trusted institution in southern Sudan.”  

And the vibrancy of the Catholic faith, despite fear, violence and a host of other issues, is remarkable, he explained. When he celebrated Mass at the cathedral in Juba in southern Sudan, it was overflowing with worshippers of all ages, giving testament to the resiliency of the people and the strength of their faith. “You realize there is this faith there that, if it is nourished, has tremendous potential,” Bishop Hubbard said. 

Mary DeTurris-Poust writes from New York.

Prayers for peace in Sudan (sidebar)

The following is the official prayer for the “101 Days of Prayer” for Sudan organized by Catholic Relief Services. For more information about the campaign, visit www.peaceinsudan.org.  

Lord Jesus, you said to us; 

“I leave you peace. My peace I give you.” 

Look upon us your sisters and brothers in Sudan 

as we face this moment of referendum. 

Send us your Spirit to guide us. 

Give us the wisdom we need to choose our future where we will know your true peace. 

You call us out of slavery, oppression, and persecution 

So that we may have life in abundance. 

Grant us peace with one another. Give peace among ethnic groups. 

Help us to work together for the good of all. 

We ask this in your name, Jesus our Lord. 

Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us.