Internally displaced people are seen Jan. 12 in Pibor after fleeing violence in South Sudan. Catholic officials in South Sudan say they are frustrated that their efforts to build peace in the infant country are threatened, but they have not given up. CNS photo/Isaac Billy, Reuters

Months after independence, South Sudan grapples with contentious issues

By  Bronwen Dachs, Catholic News Service
  • January 26, 2012

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - The church in South Sudan and its partners in North America are frustrated that their efforts to build peace in the infant country are threatened, but they have not given up, Catholic officials said.

A serious political deadlock between South Sudan and its northern neighbor, Sudan, over the split of oil revenues "could lead to a declaration of war," said Auxiliary Bishop Santo Loku Pio Doggale of Juba, capital of South Sudan.

Bishop Doggale said that he and other church leaders met with South Sudan President Salva Kiir and other senior government officials in Juba after the government announced Jan. 20 that it was shutting down oil production immediately.

"We are very concerned that no agreement has been reached with Sudan" on contentious issues, the bishop said in a Jan. 25 telephone interview from Pretoria, where he was meeting with the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference.

A year after the referendum in which 99 percent of South Sudanese voted to secede from the North, leaders of the Khartoum government and South Sudan have yet to agree on issues such as the border, citizenship for residents in disputed regions, and the split of revenues from oil reserves, which are largely located in South Sudan.

South Sudan, which gained independence last July, produces 350,000 barrels of oil per day, but the only pipeline to market runs through Sudan. Oil revenue accounts for almost all of South Sudan's budget.

There is no agreement on the terms of pipeline use and, since December, Sudan has been diverting the oil to its own refinery.

The U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services, along with other church agencies, has been providing emergency assistance to South Sudan after a series of retaliatory attacks between ethnic groups in Jonglei state displaced tens of thousands of people, beginning in late December.

"What is most disturbing is that the violence prohibits real development taking place," Dan Griffin, adviser on Sudan to CRS, said in a Jan. 20 telephone interview from Baltimore.

"The provision of emergency medical assistance means that building clinics will take longer. Building shelters for the displaced means that community centers aren't being built, which is very frustrating," Griffin said.

"But the church understands that peace is a process and has not lost its footing," he said.

"Despite the tremendous challenges, we're not giving up," he said.

The situation in Juba, which has had an "enormous influx of refugees from the fighting" in Jonglei, is "beginning to come under control with the help from many organizations," Bishop Doggale said.

The outbreak of violence in Jonglei has led to a "new cycle of revenge and retaliation," the Sudan Council of Churches, of which the Sudan Catholic Bishops' Conference is a member, said in a Jan. 18 statement.

The council warned that expressions of ethnic hatred "could be the precursor to larger-scale atrocities."

Another "threat to peace is the implosion of cultural divisions that is happening in South Sudan," said Bishop Doggale.

"Now that the civil war is over, deep internal wounds are emerging that need healing," he said.

"The church in South Sudan has an extremely important role to play in making sure that the different communities are woven together and don't unravel," Griffin said, noting that fear or greed could pull South Sudan apart.

When it gained independence from Britain in 1956, Sudan was two distinct regions and peoples -- a dry, Arab-dominated North, and a more lush, ethnically African South -- joined into one. Until a peace agreement was signed in 2005, southern rebels fought successive wars with the North, leaving millions of people dead and the region in ruins.

During the decades of war some tribes within the South developed ties with warlords linked to the North "in complex allegiances that still cause conflict," Bishop Doggale said.

"There is much bitterness that leads to revenge killings," he said, noting also that "more than 15 communities in South Sudan have huge herds of cattle and there have been raids and counter-raids."

"There is an overwhelming number of guns in the country that the government is unable to control on its own," he said.

"It needs military support to help the army to disarm lawless people," Bishop Doggale said, noting that South Sudan is a "huge country with a lot of forest, where militia groups hide."

"The church is trying to build a culture of peace" in South Sudan "that is about more than just stopping the fighting," Griffin said, noting that "aid and resources are needed to do this."

With the long-term view that the church takes, South Sudan "needs universities, opportunities for the youth," he said.

"The church has a broad geographic reach and transcends ethnic boundaries," Griffin said, noting also that people trust the church not to have a political agenda.

In the aftermath of Jonglei's conflict, the church will make a renewed "strong outreach to the youth, to persuade them that by taking up arms they are selling themselves and their country short," Griffin said.

The young people of South Sudan need to learn "to look beyond their own ethnic group and to see the value in others," he said.

The church in Sudan "recognizes the need to engage directly with young people," Griffin said, noting that "without jobs they are drawn toward conflict."

Bishop Doggale said he was in Pretoria to seek help from the South African bishops in setting up a strong parliamentary liaison office and to get guidance on how to "develop our justice and peace office and its reach into communities."

The church in South Sudan has a "powerful voice that I think we will see grow," Griffin said.

"It will guide the government in its transition from a military outfit into a transparent, functioning democracy," he said, noting that "this will take time."

While South Sudan is rich in oil, minerals and fertile land, it is one of the world's poorest and least-developed places.

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