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Church for the People in Southern Sudan

By Sara A. Fajardo

The historic landscapes, both public and private, of southern Sudan shift along fault lines, where violent upheavals have divided peaceful pasts from turbulent futures.

Sudanese church

The Church has been a safe haven for the Sudanese during the more than 20 years of violence in the country. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

The private histories include the day a parent was killed; the day a family fled its home; the day armed groups arrived and occupied a town. The shared histories include the 1983 enforcement of Sharia law that launched 20 years of civil war, the 2005 peace agreement that suspended fighting and the January 9 referendum during which southern Sudanese almost unanimously chose independence.

Throughout these histories, one institution has devoted itself faithfully to the people of southern Sudan. It has suffered with the people and refused to leave them. That institution is the Catholic Church.

For Father Germano Bernardo, the date that stands out is February 2, 2003. He'd recently returned to his native Wau after spending years in the seminary in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. In his absence, his hometown had been transformed into a city of checkpoints. A permit was required to travel distances as short as 5 miles. Artificial boundaries separated friends and neighbors. Schools were shuttered, public buildings became barracks and hospitals shifted from public to military care.

On that first Sunday in February, Father Germano had been a priest in the southern Sudanese Diocese of Wau for scarcely a month. It was only his third time officiating Mass. He clearly remembers a man named Centino entering the church and, without warning, shooting. He injured six. One woman died. Centino later killed himself.

The bloodshed deepened Father Germano's commitment to the people he served. Having endured more than 20 years of war, he was already intimately familiar with loss. At times, killings in Wau were so common, he says, that "people often were buried two to a grave."

Throughout southern Sudan, priests and women religious witnessed firsthand the war's brutality. They were called on to help parishioners make sense of the suffering and find hope within the ruins of a war that claimed two million lives and displaced another four million.

Using Catholic social teaching as a guide, the Church committed itself to upholding human rights and helping people lead their lives as normally as possible. At the height of the violence, the Church found ways to tend to sick people, run schools and negotiate peace in communities fractured by tribal conflicts.

Without taking sides, the Church offered a haven where people could worship, share their concerns and mourn their losses. By listening to their concerns, the Church gave the Sudanese people a voice and acted as guide to their collective conscience.

The Church Champions Peaceful Solutions

Across Sudan, the Catholic Church teamed up with other denominations through the New Sudan Council of Churches to advocate for a renewed and continuing peace process. Individual churches worked to end tribal conflicts, and the Church as a whole helped mend a splintered southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement—or SPLM, a divided rebel group fighting against the government of Khartoum—and subsequently paved the way for the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

Salva Kiir Myardit, president of the Government of South Sudan, recently acknowledged that, if it were not for the work of the Church, a return to peace and the January referendum would have been impossible.

Dr. Samuel Kobia, ecumenical special envoy of Catholic Relief Services' partner All Africa Conference of Churches, agrees with Kiir. "It was actually the churches that pushed for negotiations between the SPLM [southern Sudanese government] and the government in Khartoum that all must accept that a military victory is not possible," says Kobia. "If that is the case, then why continue killing innocent people? Why not come up with a solution."

The solution they came up with—the Comprehensive Peace Agreement—led to a January vote in which more than 3.8 million southern Sudanese cast ballots in a referendum on independence from the north.

Referendum Information and Voter Training

Despite close observers' expectations for a failed or at least a violence-marred vote, the Church tirelessly worked for peace. CRS helped by training priests, religious and Church-based ministries throughout southern Sudan to educate people about the electoral process.

Father Joseph Otto of St. Theresa Parish in Magwi

Priests such as Father Joseph Otto of St. Theresa Parish in Magwi and women religious throughout southern Sudan were instrumental in helping to bring peace to the region. Photo by Karen Kasmauski for CRS

Priests dedicated time after Mass to inform parishioners about the vote. Catechists and youth groups brought information to remote areas accessible only by foot. Each participant was trained to impartially encourage people to analyze their options and make their own choice.

"As a priest, I give them [the people] all the information about the voting process," says Father Germano. "As an individual, I know my vote, but I keep that to myself."

Worldwide Prayer Campaign

Education was coupled with the power of prayer. The Catholic organization Solidarity with Southern Sudan teamed up with CRS, Caritas Internationalis and other faith institutions to launch the 101 Days of Prayer Towards a Peaceful Referendum in Sudan campaign with the slogan "Change Your Heart, Change the World." It invited people of all faiths to pray for and promote peace in southern Sudan.

"The Church took the opportunity to heighten the awareness that God is deeply present in this crucial moment in Sudan," says Sister Cathy Arata of Solidarity with Southern Sudan. "Through an organized, reflective, prayerful process, the Church led the people to reflect on their mission as peacebuilders and people of prayer." People of faith teamed up to reflect that very message. In the city of Wau, a gas lantern used as a "torch of peace" was passed among Christian churches and the local mosques.

"It was a really great feeling to have people around the world praying for us," says Sophia Suffer Rokani, a CRS peacebuilding project officer. "It meant that we were not only praying for peace in Sudan, but that other people were concerned about Sudan getting peace and going through a peaceful referendum. That spiritual support and spiritual love from other people in your heart—even if you don't pray for yourself—[and] knowing people are praying for you lifts you from the burden and stress you're going through."

'Just the Beginning'

The vote showed the world that a peaceful transformation is possible, yet the coming years will be difficult. Returnees continue to flood the south, further straining already limited resources. Those who fled during the war will have to learn to live again as southerners, and the generation of young people who were robbed of an education will need to learn how to build a future from a past mired in bloodshed.

"This vote is just the beginning," says Tom Purekal, CRS program manager for peacebuilding and governance. "With the demand on basic services both by host communities and now returnees, the struggle for sheer survival in the face of limited resources means that the potential for violence remains. It could push people—who under normal circumstances would not act violently—to resort to violence out of desperation."

Although the young people of southern Sudan perceive the use of violence as the principal way to resolve conflict, the older generation remembers the Sudan of before. One of Father Germano's fondest childhood memories is before 1983. "I remember a time when I was still in primary school. During Christmas and the feasts of Ramadan, you couldn't tell who the feast belonged to; everyone came to the celebration," he says.

"I want Wau to be like before," says Father Germano. "We used to move together and did not identify this as Christian and this as Muslim. We simply lived in peace."

Sara A. Fajardo is CRS' regional information officer for eastern and southern Africa. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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