South Sudan Christians see glimmer of hope

Displaced people walk past razor wire at Tomping camp, where some 15,000 displaced people who fled their homes are sheltered by the United Nations, near Juba January 7, 2014. (PHOTO: REUTERS/James Akena),
Displaced people walk past razor wire at Tomping camp, where some 15,000 displaced people who fled their homes are sheltered by the United Nations, near Juba January 7, 2014. (PHOTO: REUTERS/James Akena),
Christian pastors, priests, saving lives amidst turmoil

Originally published in Baptist Press

A breakthrough between warring factions in South Sudan has provided a glimmer of hope that the mostly Christian nation may escape civil war.

Leaders of a rebel opposition group said Jan. 10 they would no longer demand the release of political prisoners as a cease-fire condition — a significant development in the conflict between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, and those loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar of the ethnic Nuer.

Clashes had spread to at least six of the country’s 10 states and devolved into ethnic conflicts in some regions in the month since the conflict erupted in the two-year-old nation.

More than 1 000 people have died in the fighting and more than 200 000 civilians have fled their homes. The United States has evacuated hundreds of American citizens working in South Sudan and some aid agencies have removed staff and halted operations.

The early stages of peace talks in neighboring Ethiopia brought scant encouragement, but the latest developments could offer hope. President Kiir initially refused demands to release 11 high-profile political prisoners loyal to the opposition, and rebel leaders refused to cease hostilities until the men went free.

Maibor Garang, a member of the opposition (and the son of South Sudan’s deceased first president, John Garang), said the rebels would no longer require the release, stating, “We don’t think it’s fair for our people on the ground to suffer because of the suffering of 11 people.”

It’s still unclear what rebels and former Vice President Machar hope to achieve in the bloody conflict. Though Machar (fired by Kiir last July) denied accusations of planning a coup d’état, he also called for Kiir to step down in the days after the uprisings. That’s an unlikely scenario in a beleaguered country trying to establish a democratic system.

Suffering of civilians
But while the political dynamics remain unclear, the suffering of civilians remains vivid, with more than 70 000 South Sudanese having sought shelter at U.N. compounds with severely limited resources for masses of people.

Workers at refugee camps that had been full before the crisis erupted worry they may run out of supplies in a few weeks if prolonged fighting makes supply routes a substantial security risk. U.N. officials also have warned of the danger of disease spreading in camps without enough sanitation and clean water.

Church leaders in South Sudan have entreated warring factions and ordinary citizens to prevent the political strife from turning into ethnic war.

Even as the South Sudan Council of Churches issued a statement calling for peace on Dec. 18, church leaders acknowledged the chaos unfolding in the capital. “Soldiers are asking civilians to identify themselves by tribes,” church leaders wrote. “And we cannot accept to be identified by our tribes, as we are all South Sudanese.”

For hundreds of soldiers and civilians — including at least one pastor — the plea fell short. On Dec. 19, the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch reported South Sudanese soldiers had “fired indiscriminately in highly populated areas and targeted people for their ethnicity during recent fighting in Juba,” the capital city.

In Juba, most reports concerned attacks on Nuer tribal members. In the nearby city of Bor, reports emerged of attacks against the Dinka. According to one radio station, two truckloads of bodies left a military hospital in Juba after family members didn’t come to identify the dead. One Juba resident told the station she saw nine Nuer corpses dumped near a Catholic seminary.

Pastor killed
In the Human Rights Watch report, witnesses described soldiers conducting house-to-house searches in Juba and killing Nuer civilians, including women and children. Three independent sources told the organization that soldiers forcibly removed Simon Nyang Lam, a Nuer minister, from his house. “He thought he would be OK because he was a pastor,” a relative told Human Rights Watch. Instead, sources say the soldiers killed him.

It’s a tragic turn for the two-year-old nation that endured decades of brutal civil war before declaring its independence from Sudan in 2011. The Islamic government in the north tried to force Islamic law on the predominantly Christian and animist south for nearly 25 years. Still, Sudan’s Christian population grew dramatically, from about 1.6 million in 1980 to more than 11 million in 2010. Millions of southerners escaped violent attacks by fleeing to neighboring countries. Some spent decades in refugee camps.

A Comprehensive Peace Agreement brought a ceasefire between the north and south in 2005, and southerners began returning to a region resembling a wilderness after years of war and abandonment. In 2011, southerners voted to declare their independence from Sudan and celebrated jubilantly as they became South Sudan — the world’s newest nation.

But the celebration was short-lived. Despite billions of dollars of international aid — including $300 million a year from the United States — the fledgling country stagnated.

Tension continued to build over the summer and fall until fighting broke out between soldiers loyal to both President Kiir and former Vice President Machar in December. After Kiir charged Machar with attempting a coup d’état, Machar denied the charges but called for the president to step down in the days after the violence began. The conflict quickly spread to other states, as it took on ethnic dimensions that threaten to unravel nation’s hard-fought peace.

By New Year’s Eve, both men had agreed to send delegations to hold peace talks in Ethiopia, but Machar hadn’t called for militias to stop advancing on Dinka strongholds.

Meanwhile, the United States sent special envoy Donald Booth to Juba to hold talks with Kiir and other Sudanese officials. Booth also spoke with Machar by phone. U.S. officials joined diplomats, aid groups, church leaders and human rights advocates worldwide pleading with the warring factions to avoid plunging the country into a civil war that threatened millions of vulnerable citizens.

Saving lives
The Christian Post  reports that Christian pastors and priests have been providing shelter and saving lives as the deadly ethnic conflict rages on in South Sudan.

“What these people have done deserves to be told publicly to strongly emphasize the role that churches can play in shaping the future of our country,” South Sudanese priest Fr Mark Oper Omolm shared with Agenzia Fides, the news agency of the Vatican, as he detailed several accounts of Roman Catholic priests and Protestant pastors risking their lives to save civilians.

In one such account, Evangelical Pastor Abraham Makuac saved several Nuer people following fighting in the capital, Juba. He opened his house and church to protect civilians, despite having lost his own brother who was brutally killed in the fighting.

Fr Omolm shared also shared the account of a Presbyterian pastor from Shilluk who “worked strenuously to save human lives during the fighting in Malakal.”

Pastor Michael Abang offered safety at his house and church to both Dinka and Nuer families, and in the aftermath of the fighting he was seen helping in the collection of dead bodies, according to Omolm.

Fr Paulino Lual, a Catholic priest of the Dinka group, was almost murdered by Dinka soldiers after creating a network of volunteers to protect Nuer people in Aweil. “This priest is known for his courage and firmness in condemning tribalism, corruption and all sort of social ills in the country,” Fr Omolm stated.

And yet another Catholic priest, Fr Joseph Makuei of the Nuer group, organized volunteers to protect and save people in Bentiu, accompanying them to the U.N. premises for safety.


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