The peaceful creation of South Sudan bodes well but disaster could yet unfold unless serious issues are addressed quickly, according to bishops in the region.
Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala hailed the success of formalities on Saturday marking the independence of South Sudan, describing it as a “wonderful day in the history of our people”.
During a nine-hour ceremony at the new capital of Juba, the flag of South Sudan was raised as the Sudanese flag was lowered.
The ceremony, attended by Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir, took place at the mausoleum of the late rebel leader John Garang, who died six months after signing the 2005 peace deal that ended two decades of conflict.
According to one Catholic charity official, some Sudanese had walked for days to attend the ceremony. Dan Griffin, adviser on Sudan to the US bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, said it was a “graceful assertion of independence”.
Bishop Hiiboro, meanwhile, described the atmosphere in Juba as well as in his nearby diocese of Tambura-Yambio which is up to 65 per cent Catholic, as peaceful and jubilant, and said people were “very optimistic”, with “high expectations” of the future.
He said people were joyful during a prayer vigil in Yambio held the evening before independence day and that euphoria continued the next day when large crowds attended Masses across the region.
Speaking to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need from Yambio, in South Sudan’s Western Equatoria State, Bishop Hiiboro said: “The celebrations here went wonderfully well. It was really a blessing of God that we had no violence.”
But the bishop warned of serious difficulties ahead. He singled out reports of droughts threatening harvests, a problem compounded by the return of thousands of people from displacement camps near Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
Bishop Hiiboro’s concerns echo comments made in a pastoral letter he wrote, issued on independence day, in which he admits to “mixed feelings” about the future.
On worsening humanitarian problems, he writes: “The challenge is immense. Sometimes, it will come down to a decision: What must I give us that this person might eat, be clothed, be sheltered, etcetera?”
Meanwhile, in an interview with ACN, Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Adwok of Khartoum warned of the increased threat of conflict spreading from disputed regions close to South Sudan’s border with the north, including the Blue Nile state and oil-rich Abyei.
Bishop Adwok said: “I do not think the South will stand idle if it sees its former allies experiencing fatalities and other forms of suffering.”
Already, reports state up to 170,000 people have been displaced amid fighting in South Kordofan.
Bishop Adwok went on to stress the threat posed by seven or more militia groups linked to conflict in South Sudan.
Advocating dialogue aimed at early conflict resolution, Bishop Adwok said: “These are big issues. If the government of South Sudan does not sit down to address the issues raised by the militia groups, it could become a nightmare with no stability for the South.”
Bishop Adwok said that in Khartoum the ruling National Congress Party was as yet divided on plans to enforce Islamic Shari‘a law more vigorously in Sudan with potential worsening discrimination and oppression of minority groups including Christians.
He said that in his pastoral region of Kosti, he had called for calm in advice given to many of the 18,000 people amassing around the town, awaiting transport down the River Nile and repatriation to the south.
Bishop Adwok said: “I told them not to provoke any reaction from the host community in Kosti.
“The 18,000 do not have protection and are very vulnerable.”
Referring to politicians in Khartoum, he said: “There is a recognition that change has finally come to South Sudan but they are in a defiant mood.”
“Many see South Sudan becoming independent as a kind of liberation, meaning that Khartoum is now able to what it wants and can pursue its own agenda without having to take into account the very different needs of the south.”
Both bishops have reiterated the importance of collaboration with charities and other organisations to help both Sudan and South Sudan through this period of transition.
In his message to ACN late last week, Bishop Hiiboro wrote: “We in the Catholic diocese of Tambura-Yambio feel compelled to seek from our partners how together to address these issues and to seek strategies in how far the Church and her international partners can reach out to the society as a whole to contribute as best as possible to a just and promising development.”
Sudan and South Sudan are priority countries for Aid to the Church in Need.
ACN provides key support for thousands of displaced children attending Save the Saveable schools in and around Khartoum, Mass stipends for priests, vehicles and other transport for clergy and religious, help for religious Sisters, catechists and others in formation and construction of church buildings.