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On October 23, I was one of 32 people crowded into the temporary office of the World Evangelical Alliance at Cape Town 2010. Twenty-eight of the people were representing the evangelical community of Sudan at what has been hailed as the most diverse gathering of the church ever. The rest of us were there to hear our Sudanese brothers and sisters' hopes and apprehensions as they approached the January 9 referendum on separate statehood for southern Sudan.

The Sudanese representatives said, "Pray, pray, pray." Pray for a fair and free election, without violent incidents or intimidation. As they took turns speaking, almost everyone earnestly repeated that phrase. They meant it.

After 50 years of civil war, southern Sudan has enjoyed a limited peace. The chance to vote for independence was guaranteed in the 2005 peace agreement, but these church leaders were worried.

Whether the southern Sudanese vote for independence from the North or for continued national unity, they have no control over reactions from the government or its proxies. One church leader who lives near the border later told me of a deadly October 31 border skirmish. As northern forces massed near the border, nervous southerners had begun digging defensive fortifications. Northern soldiers crossed the border and shot two southerners who had wielded only shovels. The incident highlights the sense of threat the southern Sudanese feel before this election. Major violence could erupt.

Given south Sudan's history, independence seems attractive. Until the mid-19th century, the South was largely isolated by the great Sudd Swamp. But then a route was opened through the swamp. Missionaries, slavers, and ivory hunters descended. All 46 missionaries ...

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January 2011

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