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Sudanese Christians have long awaited the 2011 independence referendum that promises finally to give their southern region a voice in the Muslim-majority nation. But ironically, Sudan's first democratic election in 24 years (to be held April 11, unless opposition parties boycott as threatened) may derail their hopes.

Observers believe the presidential election this spring will test whether the strife-torn nation will hold together until the January 2011 nation-wide vote over unification. The vote is mandated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 by the northern National Congress Party and the southern Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement.

"It is my understanding that most, if not all, of the church leaders of South Sudan want to secede," said Faith McDonnell, director of the Religious Liberty Program at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. However, she believes the election of a Northern candidate friendly to the South could result in a vote against secession.

The fairness of the April election is in doubt. In October, the Sudan Council of Churches released an open letter regarding the "general lack of untrustworthiness and transparency from the Northern government" in the election process. One concern: the National Congress Party and incumbent President Omir al-Bashir—best known for his 2009 indictment by the International Criminal Court for involvement in the 2003 Darfur genocide—control the national election commission.

The voter registration process has been difficult. "You'll find that a big portion of the diaspora never registered, because they didn't have their proper documents," said Jimmy Mulla, president of D.C.-based Southern Sudanese Voice for Freedom.

"Southern Sudan has been denied for years," said William Deng, a native of the region and now a seminary student at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Pennsylvania. "Before the war, it was two million people and one clinic. A lot of children are born there in their houses; there is no record."

A birth certificate is required to register to vote. Deng, one of the "Lost Boys" relocated to the U.S. as child refugees, is among those denied.

Church leaders such as Archbishop Daniel Deng (no relation) of the Episcopal Church of Sudan have struggled for a role in the election process, appealing to the international community to safeguard the cpa in the face of violations.

"The position of the church is to make peace," said Deng. "Sometimes we can't make it, because we don't have power." The elections could transform the role of the church by allowing Christians—long punished for their faith—to finally have a voice in historically Islamic-controlled Sudan.

In the meantime, the Christian diaspora is slowly returning to Southern Sudan and rebuilding burned-out churches, even as the region passed Darfur in deaths last year. "People come back home," said Deng. "They start [by having church] under the tree; maybe next to the tree is where they will build [the new church]."


Related Elsewhere:

Previous articles on Sudan include:

More Aid Groups at Risk in Sudan | President al-Bashir issues public call to 'Sudanize' relief work. (March 20, 2009)
Franklin Graham: Sudan's al-Bashir 'Responsible for Bloodshed' | Samaritan's Purse leader asks president to reinstate aid agency work in Darfur region. (March 19, 2009)
Bush's Envoy's Advice: 'Raise Cain' | How advocacy by American Christians trims violence in Sudan. (January 14, 2009)
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