Bishop Rudolf Deng Majak stood in front of a church full of worshipers with the message he had traveled thousands of miles to deliver—the urgent need for support in his home country, Sudan, as his fellow southern Sudanese prepare to vote on their future.
"We need to rekindle the enthusiasm and the solidarity that we had when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Kenya on the 9th of January, 2005," he told the congregation of St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Baltimore, calling on governments and international organizations, as well as concerned people around the world, to focus their attention on his country.
Bishop Deng, traveling with his fellow Bishop Daniel Adwok Kur, had already taken that message to the United Nations, meeting with a variety of delegations, and to Washington, talking to members of Congress and their staff.
The two bishops had participated in a Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, where Archbishop Timothy Dolan called on those present to pay attention to the situation in Sudan, to pray for peace in this crucial time for that country. The bishops' trip was sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services which have committed $4 million to build and keep peace in Sudan in addition to the millions of dollars of development and emergency assistance CRS provides there.
The message they delivered is that Sudan must not go back to the violence that plagued generations of southern Sudanese, killing an estimated 2 million and displacing millions more long before Darfur emerged into the headlines.
The fighting was not only between the north and the south, but also along longstanding ethnic and tribal fault lines in the south. What used to be minor disputes over land and cattle turned into deadly battles as weapons flowed into the area. Fueling the conflict was real and potential income from oil fields.
"Many people do not realize that more southern Sudanese were killed by other southern Sudanese than were killed by those from the north," Bishop Deng said. "We are afraid now because too many weapons are again coming into the south."
Three decades of fighting was brought to an end by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The crucial provision of that agreement is a referendum set for January. It will allow southern Sudanese to choose if they want to remain united with the north or become an independent nation.
"It is time to let the people of the south determine their own future," said Bishop Daniel.
If the referendum comes off peacefully, with an outcome that is respected by all, the hope is that the Sudanese people can enjoy the peace and prosperity that have proven so elusive during a half century of independence. Otherwise, the fear is that the country and, indeed, the entire region will be plunged into unimaginable violence.
Bishop Deng, whose diocese is Wau in the south, can recount many horrors he has seen in his native province, due to violence and to famines. Throughout it all, churches—Catholic and Protestant—have been among the most important civic institutions throughout southern Sudan.
"People look to us, they trust us," he said. The bishops have emphasized the importance of the Church in this process.
CRS-supported programs are using this trust. CRS has sponsored ecumenical gatherings of church leaders to plan for the months leading up to the referendum. Catholic Church-based radio programming will distribute information to defuse rumors that can lead to violence. The church will lead efforts—as it did in the negotiations that led to the peace accord—to bring together disparate groups to dispel tension between them. Churches will often be the center of programs teaching community leaders ways of dealing with and dispelling conflicts without resorting to violence.
Bishop Kur is the auxiliary bishop in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, where CRS programming is concentrated on the many refugees who have fled the fighting in the south and in Darfur over the last 40 years.
"We must work so that everyone from every group is respected," he said.
After their visits in Washington, the bishops traveled to Atlanta, where they were joined by Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala, whose diocese, Tambura-Yambio, is just south of Wau. Bishop Kussala's diocese has been victimized by members of the Lord's Resistance Army, a one-time Ugandan revolutionary group that now terrorizes wide areas of East Africa.
"They take children to be soldiers and kill many people," Bishop Kussala said. "Most people have fled to the cities where we in the Church work to care for their humanitarian needs. How does this army survive in the bush for so many years? Someone must be helping them."
In Atlanta, the three bishops met with Archbishop Wilton Gregory and with officials at the Carter Center, which has been active in Sudan.
In both Baltimore and Atlanta, the bishops addressed members of the Sudanese diaspora. On the Sunday that Bishop Deng and Bishop Kur visited St. Matthew's—a multinational polyglot congregation led by Father Joseph Muth—a Sudanese choir sang a song in their native tongue: "We bow down blessed Jesus, the Sudan sings, the Sudan sings..."
Bishop Deng spoke to about 100 Sudanese in Baltimore, most of whom attended a luncheon afterward where they enjoyed dishes from their home country. The bishop said that he understood that they had left to better themselves with education and careers. But he called on them to return to their native land, to help rebuild it after the referendum.
"We are a broken community," he said. "We need the solidarity of people around the world to heal us."
About 200 Sudanese gathered at Corpus Christi Catholic Churcn near Atlanta. There, Bishop Kussala explained why bringing peace to his country is such a personal mission.
"My two sisters along with my mother were killed in the violence during the war," he said. "That is why I dedicated myself to peace. I don't want anyone else to lose their family."
As they left, the bishops issued a statement calling for the greater involvement of the international community to ensure that the January referendum is conducted properly.
"And now we return to Sudan and to the struggle for the right of self-determination for the Sudanese people," they wrote. "We call for international support for our fundamental freedom to freely choose whether to remain united with the larger Sudan," or, noting that their visit coincided with the July 4 holiday, follow the path the United States took on the journey to independence.
"Let freedom ring," the bishops wrote. "Let justice, mercy and peace prevail for all of God's children."
Michael Hill is Senior Communications Manager at CRS headquarters in Baltimore.