At the Lausanne Movement's Cape Town 2010 congress, Christianity Today editor in chief David Neff met with Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, and 28 representatives of Christian churches in Sudan—some from the traditionally Muslim North and most from the Christian and animist South. Tunnicliffe and Neff listened to the Sudanese delegates' worries about what might happen if their upcoming referendum on independence for southern Sudan resulted in a vote for secession. They also heard the Sudanese plead for prayers and request resources to help them resettle a potential flood of displaced persons.
After they returned from South Africa, Neff asked Tunnicliffe to explain to CT readers the nature of the upcoming vote and the reasons for Christians around the globe to engage in prayer for this election.
You recently met with church and government leaders in Sudan. What happened at that meeting?
This meeting took place in Juba between the heads of churches for the entirety of Sudan—both northern and southern church leaders, heads of all the denominations—and with the leaders of the southern Sudan government, including the president and vice-president and members of cabinet. During those three days, they discussed the role of the church in the upcoming referendum and how the church might be involved in making sure that the referendum was fair and free of violence.
Why is this referendum, scheduled for January 9, so important?
Sudan has experienced civil war for the last 50 years with just a few breaks. When the civil war ended five years ago, the agreement was that there would be a vote, a referendum held by the south Sudanese to determine whether they should stay as part of Sudan or become a separate country. That was a key part of the peace agreement, so it's really important that the people of southern Sudan have the freedom to make that choice.
What are the threats right now? Is there even talk of not holding the referendum?
There are a whole series of concerns. One is the shortness of the time frame of the January 9 referendum, getting everyone registered to vote within southern Sudan. The people who are allowed to vote also include southern Sudanese people living in the North. There are probably one-and-a-half million people there. In addition, there is the southern Sudanese diaspora around the world. How to register all those people in time?
The northern government is showing strong indications that they don't want the vote to take place because of the potential impact it would have for them.
The northern Sudanese government would favor the status quo?
I believe so. Ministers in the federal government, who are northern Sudanese, have said that if the southerners were to vote in favor of secession then those southerners living in the North would lose government and social benefits. They would not be able to go to a hospital. There would be issues around education. Perhaps they would lose their citizenship. The veiled and not-so-veiled threats cause real concern.
What is the case for making south Sudan independent of the North? Why will many southern Sudanese vote for that?
As an international organization, the World Evangelical Alliance doesn't have a specific opinion on whether the South should vote for secession or for unity. The problem is this: since the civil war ended five years ago, there has been very little investment by the overall national government in the South. Separation would give the southern Sudanese greater control over their own development and destiny.