Just as the international spotlight reached the persecuted Christians of southern Sudan, more than a dozen humanitarian groups—including World Vision, Oxfam, and CARE—withdrew their operations over a dispute with rebel leader John Garang.
The southern commander demanded that humanitarian groups sign a memorandum of understanding by March 1 recognizing his Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) as the governing authority on aid efforts in southern Sudan.
Some groups say the agreement would force them to take sides in the civil war.
"We feel our objectivity is at stake here. The agreement is primarily aimed at aligning non-government organizations or humanitarian groups with political factions," says Bruce Wilkinson, senior vice president of World Vision.
The aid groups also object to terms that would give the SPLA the right to restrict aid groups' public meetings, oversee their budgets, and access their trucks and relief supplies that then could be used in the war.
"Garang has chosen to shoot himself in the foot by making himself look more interested in the politics of the situation than the needs of his people," warns Robert Seiple, U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom.
The withdrawal of "blue chip" relief groups may mean that aid to southern Sudan will drop by a third, Seiple says. Hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese may still be at risk of severe malnutrition, according to the U.N. World Food Program.
Most groups are staying, however—including World Relief and Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse—placing Christians agencies on both sides of the issue. U.N. relief efforts throughout the country will continue, as will World Vision's efforts in northern Sudan.
On the deadline day for signing with the SPLA, Sudanese government forces bombed a hospital run by Samaritan's Purse in southern Sudan. Since then it has been bombed three more times. A hospital sponsored by Voice of the Martyrs and Far Reaching Ministries was also bombed, killing one aid worker.
The dispute raises the troublesome issue of when a rebel movement becomes a legitimate state. A senior U.S. official warns that Africa "is a continent with lots of rebel leaders. If the aid groups sign this memo, they would be asked to do so elsewhere."
But, says Steve Wondu, SPLA representative to the U.S., "These are our families we are fighting for. We ought to be able to have a say where you are spending millions of dollars for our children."
"When we started working in Sudan, we decided not to let the Khartoum government dictate whom we could and couldn't help," says Franklin Graham. "Since 1998, our hospital has helped more than 100,000 Sudanese patients, and our doors will remain open."
Tony Carnes is Senior News Writer for Christianity Today.
See our earlier coverage of this issue, "Bombs Continue to Fall on Ministry Hospitals in Sudan | Samaritan's Purse hit for fourth time, two killed in Voice of the Martyrs bombing" (Mar. 24, 2000)
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