A Catholic bishop says recent violence in South Sudan is the result of a political struggle between people fighting over power and material gain.
"This is a political conflict, a power struggle between two movements within the SPLA (South Sudan People's Liberation Army), that has now turned into a tribal conflict between the Dinka and the Nuer," Bishop Paride Taban told Catholic News Service in a Jan. 6 telephone interview from Juba, the nation's capital.
South Sudan became independent in 2011, yet church leaders have continually warned the country's leaders, many of them Catholics, that corruption and tribal rivalries were undermining the new nation's democratic foundations. "In the period since independence, there has been a lot of corruption. Everyone wants to have power, because then you can have material things. As we've become more materialistic, God has become secondary. This is a time to tell our people to turn to God," said Bishop Taban, the retired bishop of Torit.
"Instead of making war, everyone should say, 'I'm sorry, my brother, I am wrong. Let us forgive each other and forget the past and start a new page.' Yet nobody has a sense of repentance," he said.
In 1983, Bishop Taban was named to head the diocese of Torit, the capital of Eastern Equatoria state and one of the harshest battlegrounds in the decades-long war between southern rebels and Sudanese government forces. He retired in 2004, a year before the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought an end to the civil war. Since then he has been involved in reconciliation efforts, including the founding of the Holy Trinity Peace Village in Kuron, which seeks to break the cycle of cattle-raiding and retaliation that has long troubled relations among the country's ethnic groups.
With Kuron becoming an example of peace in a country still torn by tribalism and cattle-raiding, in 2013 the United Nations awarded him the Sergio Vieira de Mello Prize in recognition for his efforts in promoting peace. Vieira de Mello, a former U.N. human rights chief, died in a bombing in Iraq in 2003. In recent months, Bishop Taban has been mediating between the government and forces loyal to David Yau, a dissident general in restive Jonglei state. Yau has led an armed rebellion of ethnic Murle since 2012.
"Since we got involved in negotiating in August, there has been no fighting, and on Monday (Jan. 6) we agreed to a cease-fire with this group. It is now one of the safe havens in the region, with no more fighting. We will remain involved until we finish the peace process with that group of rebels," Bishop Taban said. The bishop said the conflict in Jonglei has been exacerbated by the failure of the new government to provide services in remote areas.
"The people didn't get the services that with independence they were expecting. As Dr. John said, 'Carry the town to the people. Don't bring the people to the town,'" said Bishop Taban, referring to independence leader John Garang, who was killed in a 2005 helicopter crash.
Bishop Taban said he was encouraged by the peace talks that began Jan. 6 in Addis Ababa, the capital of neighboring Ethiopia. He said he was particularly pleased that some regional church leaders were participating, including the Rev. Samuel Kobia, a Methodist minister and former general secretary of the World Council of Churches. In 2010, Rev. Kobia was appointed an ecumenical special envoy to Sudan by the All Africa Conference of Churches.
Bishop Taban said the New Sudan Council of Churches also would send a representative to the talks. Meanwhile, he said the church was heavily involved in lowering local tensions. "If there is calm now in Juba, it is because of the struggle of the church," he said.
Bishop Taban celebrated Mass Jan. 6 in Juba, in one of the U.N. camps that have become home for thousands of families displaced by the fighting. "It's very difficult when you see children and women agonizing in the camp. Some of them don't know if their fathers or husbands have been killed," he said. "It gives you pity when you go there and see people in the camp. If the people who are fighting would look at this, they would stop their fighting forever."