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Church leaders in search of peace in a country in crisis

John Ashworth - The Tablet - Fri, Jan 27th 2023

Church leaders in search of peace in a country in crisis

Pope Francis hosted an ecumenical spiritual retreat with church leaders from South Sudan in the Vatican in 2019.Alamy

Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields, will begin a joint visit to South Sudan on 3 February. What impact could their ecumenical journey together have on this conflict-ridden country?

Denominations? Dr Haruun Ruun, a former leader of the New Sudan Council of Churches, said to a European visitor: “You are the ones who had the Reformation, not us. Our denomination is survival.”

Sudan’s ecumenical journey began almost 60 years ago, when two enlightened mission- aries, Catholic Archbishop Agostini Baroni and Anglican Bishop Oliver Allison, discerned that in the face of the Arabisation and Islamisation policies of successive regimes in Khartoum, Christian Churches would have to work together if they were to survive. In what was more of a pragmatic than a theo- logical move – praxis theology in action – together with the Presbyterian Church they formed the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC). Later they were joined by Orthodox and a number of evangelical Churches.

This ecumenical spirit was renewed 20 years later during Sudan’s Civil War, when the Khartoum regime would not allow the SCC to cross the front line into territory con- trolled by the armed liberation movement; so two indigenous bishops, Catholic Paride Taban and Anglican Nathaniel Garang, formed a subsidiary, the New Sudan Council of Churches, to serve these areas.

Many years later again, in the new independent nation of South Sudan, the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC) was formed. The chair, a Presbyterian Moderator, emphasised: “We are not ‘Churches’. We are the Church of Christ in South Sudan.” Catholics owned that sentiment just as much as the other member Churches. The current vice chair of the SSCC is Catholic Archbishop Stephen Ameyu, and the secretary-general is a Catholic priest. In both Sudan and South Sudan, the Catholic Church has provided leadership in the ecumenical family, and the upcoming ecumenical pilgrimage can only strengthen this.

This SSCC has unique credibility and moral authority. During 22 years of civil war, when there was no government, no civil society, no media, no UN, no NGOs, and even the authority of the traditional chiefs and elders was eroded by the young comrades with guns, the ecumenical “Church of Christ” was the only institution whose personnel and infrastructure remained on the ground with the people. Wherever there were people, there was the Church. It could not evacuate and leave people behind when the lives of its personnel were in danger, as the secular aid agencies had to do.

In many ways the Church became a replacement for the government. It provided basic services such as health, education and humanitarian aid, and even a degree of protection – it may not have had guns, but the behaviour of the warring parties was often moderated by the presence of the Church. The people of southern Sudan often looked to the Church for guidance and leadership – not only Christians, but also Muslims and followers of African traditional religion.

The Church in Sudan and South Sudan has always seen peace-building as part of its pastoral role, long before there was any scholarly literature on the subject, long before the fruits of Vatican II and Catholic Social Teaching became widely disseminated, long before the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative rose to prominence. It learned peacemaking on the job – in a spirit of prayerful discernment, inclusivity and subsidiarity, making use of traditional indigenous peace and reconciliation methods alongside gospel values and modern peace-building techniques.

In 1972 the Church – the only institution trusted by both the Islamic government in the north and the mainly non-Muslim southerners – mediated an end to Sudan’s First Civil War. During the Second Civil War, which began in 1983, the Church brokered the groundbreaking people-to-people peace process to reconcile warring southerners; created an international ecumenical forum to advocate for peace; and, despite being formally excluded from the talks, played a constructive behind-the-scenes role in the high-level national negotiations which eventually led to the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.

While this agreement led to the independence of South Sudan in 2011, it did not lead to peace, and just two years after independence, a fratricidal power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar led to a fresh civil war in the new nation. The Catholic and Anglican archbishops had met them and begged them to avoid violence, but their voices were not listened to. Within 48 hours of the conflict breaking out in the capital, ecumenical church leaders met in the Catholic archbishop’s house – at great personal risk as heavy fighting was taking place in the streets all around them – and issued the first of many appeals for an end to the violence. They continued to issue appeals, to shelter and protect displaced people in their churches, to distribute humanitarian aid, to provide spiritual succour and trauma healing to their suffering flock and to work for peace at every opportunity. This included local community peace and reconciliation processes; behind-the-scenes efforts with key protagonists; support for internationally mediated peace talks; and a national Action Plan for Peace led by the SSCC following a church leaders’ retreat in Kigali in 2015, where they were very moved to hear first-hand about Rwanda’s experience during and after the 1994 genocide.

Successive Archbishops of Canterbury have taken a great interest in the struggles of this new nation, visiting several times, and Justin Welby is no exception. Pope Francis welcomed the leaders of the SSCC on a visit to the Vatican in 2016. In consultation with the Vatican and the Church of Scotland, in 2019 Welby initiated an ecumenical retreat for the key South Sudanese political leaders, which was hosted by Francis in Rome. At that time it was agreed that the three global church leaders would visit South Sudan for an ecumenical pilgrimage. That pilgrimage was delayed by Covid and other factors, then scheduled for 2022 but postponed again due to the Holy Father’s health, but is now due to go ahead in February.

Will the visit of the church leaders help to bring peace to South Sudan? Certainly it will be a tremendous spiritual and moral boost to the people, who pray for peace and justice. All the political leaders are professed Christians, with President Salva Kiir a practising Catholic; but so far the appeals of their church leaders, both national and global, have fallen on deaf ears. At the meeting in Rome in 2019, Pope Francis famously knelt and kissed their feet in Rome: a shocking and moving gesture which sadly appeared to have no lasting effect on them. Salva Kiir and Riek Machar agreed to a peace deal, and a power-sharing government has been formed (referred to by many local people as “looting sharing”). Fighting between major armed forces has dwindled, but a number of armed groups refused to sign the agreement, and conflict continues between many communities at a local level, which the government and international media like to dismiss as “tribal conflict” but which is not unconnected to national political dynamics.

Meanwhile the country has descended into poverty, economic collapse, lawlessness, impunity, looting and rape, with no sign of an end. The situation has been exacerbated by natural disasters, including four years of widespread flooding across the nation. Some two-thirds of South Sudan’s population of 11.4 million are estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance. The leaders have demonstrated no political will to make the changes necessary to bring justice and peace, and after the trauma of so many years of war it is unlikely they even have the capacity to do so. 

Nevertheless, Archbishop Ameyu believes that “the visit of the Holy Father and his colleagues is important for the people of South Sudan to think about peace and stability. It’s a moment for our people to know and be ready to eventually have peace.” There is always hope, even amid apparent hopelessness, and the Church is a purveyor of that hope. More than 20 years ago, Bishop Taban founded a “peace village” in one of the most remote and isolated areas of South Sudan, bringing together warring communities with a nonviolent spirituality that can perhaps be summed up in eight words and phrases which he likes to share with all-comers: “I love you, I miss you, Thank you, I forgive, We forget, Together, I am wrong, I am sorry.” 

South Sudanese church leaders continue to promote peace and reconciliation at every level. From Rome, the Sant’Egidio community continues to broker peace talks between the government and the groups that have not signed up to the current power-sharing agreement. And the leaders of the three largest and most influential Churches in South Sudan continue to look for support, encouragement and active nonviolent engagement from the global church leaders who next week will express their solidarity with the suffering people of that nation .

John Ashworth is a Catholic missionary who has spent 40 years working with the Church in Sudan and South Sudan.




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