Sudan needs our solidarity
Sudan needs our support as the country prepares for a referendum on whether South Sudan becomes independent.
Guest blog by Ken Hackett
“When the massacre in Rwanda happened, you said no one had told you, no one had warned you. We are here now telling you what could happen in Sudan, we are warning you.”
Bishop Paride Taban, emeritus bishop of the Torit diocese in South Sudan delivered that message to a delegation at the United Nations recently. He was trying to express how crucial it is that a referendum on the future of South Sudan, scheduled for January 9, comes off peacefully and with integrity, its results respected by all.
If it does Sudan could enter into a time of peace and prosperity unlike any in its half century of independence. Many are working hard to make that happen and the Catholic Church in an ecumenical partnership is at the center of those efforts.
Bishops speak out. Clergy on the ground build bridges between divided communities. The entire Sudanese church is in the midst of 101 Days of Prayer for Peace in Sudan, a daily devotional that goes until January 1.
If the results of the referendum are disputed or the desires expressed by the people are not respected, no one knows what will happen. But history can give us a clue and the picture that emerges is not pretty. Before the world turned its attention to Darfur, there was a greater catastrophe in the south of Sudan. Millions died in fighting between the north and south and in violent conflict among different southern groups. Millions more were displaced.
A treaty--the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)--signed in 2005 ended that fighting. The centerpiece of the CPA is the upcoming referendum when southerners can vote to remain part of Sudan or form their own country. Many fear understandably that if that referendum is not conducted freely and fairly--and preparations are woefully behind schedule--then, as Bishop Taban says, the world could have another Rwanda on its hands.
For us here in the U.S., Sudan seems very far away and we have our own problems here at home. Yet these people are our brothers and sisters. They merit our concern particularly in this time of both opportunity and danger.
This is not because the people in the South are Christians. The shorthand description of the conflict there--an Islamic north vs. a Christian south--is not really accurate. There are plenty of Muslims in the south, and many Christians in the north. What the CPA recognized is that southern Sudanese deserve the right to choose their own future.
We take no position on how southern Sudanese should vote in the referendum. That’s for them to decide. Our only endorsement is for peace. But we know that peace will come to Sudan only if southern Sudanese are able to live in dignity. A crucial part of that is that they have the ability to determine their own future.
The faith of the people is critical to this process. During the years of devastation, churches, Catholic and Protestant, were in many cases the only institutions--civil or religious--that remained in the lives of southern Sudanese, whether they were Christian, Muslim, or Animist. They trust the church. They look to it with hope for their future. The Catholic Church has worked for peace throughout the decades and we need to support it as seeks peace now.
Bishop Taban is an example of this. He came to the United States in 1991, doing exactly what he is doing now – trying to get the world to support peace in his country. When he took emeritus status, Bishop Taban founded a community of peace in the south of Sudan, a place where Sudanese of varied ethnicities and beliefs all live together. That’s where he lives now.
But he still sees his role as giving voice to the voiceless. “They say it is the grass that suffers when the elephants fight,” he said during this visit. “We are here representing the grass, the people on the ground who are suffering.”
Let us join with the people of Sudan, praying with them during the 101 Days of Prayer, urging that the United States, the United Nations, that all of us stay focused on this referendum. Let’s help the voiceless of Sudan speak with a deafening roar that the whole world can hear.
Guest blogger Ken Hackett is is president of Catholic Relief Services , the official overseas humanitarian organization of the Catholic community in the United States, which is working closely with the church in Sudan. Visit CRS's country page for Sudan  to learn more about the country.
Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.