You have to look up to the Sudanese bishops because they maintain their faith despite what they’ve been through. Witnesses to their country’s horrific civil war, they nevertheless have ready smiles and gentle humor, laughing over lunch at the Supreme Court cafeteria (after Congressional hearings on Sudan sponsored by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom). Bishop Rudolf Deng Majak, president of the Sudanese bishops’ conference, and Bishop Daniel Adwok Kur, auxiliary bishop in Khartoum, retain hope for peace in Sudan despite the likelihood of war. The bishops recently traveled to the United States to urge international attention to the peace process in Sudan at this critical crossroads. And you literally have to look up to them. After spending two days with the Sudanese bishops, who are well over six feet tall, I had a bit of a kink in my neck.
Sudan is preparing for a referendum next January as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war in which two million people died and four million fled their homes to avoid the violence. The people of southern Sudan are widely expected to vote to break from the north and become an independent country. The government in northern Sudan (headed by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was indicted for genocide and war crimes by the International Criminal Court) is not eager to implement the peace agreement and the referendum, thereby losing the south, where rich oil fields lie.
In the five years since the peace agreement, refugees returned and oil income grew. But war will return if the referendum and the agreement do not go forward, and it will be worse this time around, with oil-funded weapons being sold to all sides.
Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, says, “I will work with officials in Khartoum and Darfur, N.G.O.’s and members of the community to make sure we put into place a system of security and stabilization.”
But the Sudanese bishops note that the Sudanese churches are often excluded from U.S. and U.N. activities in Sudan despite their proven track record in building peace.
Dan Griffin of Catholic Relief Services notes the need to include the churches at this critical juncture. “The Catholic Church and communities of faith in Sudan have been the only bodies to successfully implement peace building on a large scale in Sudan, through the people-to-people peace process that reconciled the Dinka and the Nuer people that enabled the Comprehensive Peace Agreement process to move forward. The church has been instrumental in addressing conflict. They have the moral authority, the experience and the capacity to reach across ethnic lines and geographical areas to provide real leadership and an alternate view of peace.”
As Steve Hilbert, Africa specialist on the staff of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops said, “There are a million ways this can go wrong, and only one [way] it can go right. Will we witness a new peace or a return to an old war?”
The issue is not just a botched African referendum. The issue is avoiding genocide. Much of the international attention is focused on the prospect of north-versus-south violence. But Bishop Deng cautions, “Many people do not realize that more southern Sudanese were killed by other southern Sudanese than were killed by those from the north.”
Unlike the Rwandan genocide, this time we know in advance when the trigger event will occur. The Sudanese church and Catholic Relief Services are ramping up peace-building activities, including conflict mediation, interfaith programs, leadership training and voter education programs. (Watch video interviews with Bishop Rudolph Deng Majak and Dan Griffin of CRS.)
The campaign Catholics Confront Global Poverty, sponsored by C.R.S. and the U.S.C.C.B., urges support for the bipartisan House Resolution 1588, to strengthen U.S. and international engagement and coordination in helping the Sudanese implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. They need our solidarity, prayers and support to avoid genocide and build peace. The church and the U.S. government have helped work for peace in Sudan before; both must help again. As Bishop Deng notes: “We are a broken community. We need the solidarity of people around the world to heal us. People look up to us, they trust us.”