The Rush to Reconcile
On Sunday, the fate of 8.2 million southern Sudanese will be put to vote: whether or not to pursue independence. The referendum comes six years after the end of a civil war that cost two million lives. But the prospect of renewed violence is real, causing Christian leaders and others to redouble their efforts at reconciliation.
"It is our golden choice. It is time to choose now," said Joseph Garang Atem Zorial, the Anglican bishop of Renk, a town along Sudan's north-south border. He joins hundreds of religious and political leaders working to make the election fair and fraud-free. He also believes this is the best chance for self-determination in southern Sudan, whose citizens have been subject for decades to rule by an Islamic majority.
There is little doubt what outcome Bishop Joseph favors. "I am campaigning for separation," he told Christianity Today. According to a recent survey, a majority of southern Sudanese support political independence. Bishop Joseph's view is that 95 percent of southerners will vote for it.
Local referendums in oil-rich Abyei and in the border states of south Kordofan and Blue Nile allow advisory votes on political separation. But preparation for the critical vote in Abyei, where the border is in dispute, is behind schedule and it is unlikely to occur on January 9.
Many factors make separation necessary, according to southern Sudanese leaders, including the following:
- Poverty: Sudan's national government exports about $35 million per day of crude oil, mostly from the South. Very little of the oil wealth gets shared with southerners, despite the 2005 peace agreement that required the North to do so. More than half of southern Sudan lives on less than $1 per day. Economic development has stalled for decades.
- Religious discrimination: Sudan's national leaders support a version of Islamic law (Shari'ah) that creates a climate of chronic discrimination against Sudanese Christians and other minorities, especially in the areas of housing, employment, and education.
- Political repression: President Omar al-Bashir is under criminal indictment by international courts for using the military to suppress minority groups throughout Sudan. He faces charges ranging from ordering genocide to committing war crimes in Sudan's Darfur region, where at least 200,000 have died since 2003.
"We don't want to go back to war," Bishop Joseph said. "[But] the unity we had been looking for has failed, so now it is time for separation."
The national referendum has a global character. During the war years (1955-2005), hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese fled their nation. They are now spread across the globe from Sydney, Australia, to Omaha, Nebraska.
Many of them, including Sudanese American John Dut, expect to vote. During the war, Dut, then 10 years old, escaped death after his village was attacked. He lived in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp for 10 years and was one of the 3,800 so-called Lost Boys of Sudan to resettle in the U.S. before September 11, 2001, after which the resettlement program was suspended until 2006.
In November, Sudan's government hired Dut to conduct voter registration in Omaha, where a large number of Lost Boys now live. Dut, who has returned to southern Sudan six times since 2002, told CT he is happy to work for the government. But his hope centers on the church.
"The church has peace in its hands," Dut said. "The peace we have now came because of the American churches. For me, the churches here in America have a value: when they speak out, the world will listen. Whatever life the Sudanese have now, it comes through the church."