PLAGUED by violence, disease, and severe food shortages, South Sudan will not have a formal celebration of its fifth year of independence on Saturday.
“We need to spend the little that we have on other issues,” a government minister told reporters last week.
Bishops spoke this week of their concerns and hopes for the country, where, despite the signing of a peace agreement in August, and the formation of a Transitional Government of National Unity in April, violence has persisted. At least 43 people were killed after fighting between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and armed groups, in Wau town and surrounding areas, on 24 June. Up to 120,000 people were displaced. Some people took shelter at St Mary’s Cathedral, where 13 people have been buried, including a three-year-old child, a priest, Fr Natale, told Al Jazeera.
On Wednesday, the Bishop of Wau, the Rt Revd Moses Deng, said that, in addition to the violence in his diocese, killings were reported daily in various towns. He has “very little faith” in the transitional government, “and many people share the same view with me”. He is concerned that the peace agreement has yet to be implemented.
“I feel that there is nothing to celebrate really, when South Sudanese are dying in large numbers from hunger, insecurity, diseases,” he said. “I believe many South Sudanese feel that this is not the South Sudan they fought and voted for. I also feel that fighting may break out in the celebration, so we better not do it.”
The Bishop of Kajo-Keji, the Rt Revd Anthony Poggo, said on Tuesday that it was still important to mark the anniversary. “You can come together and thank God for independence, and pray for the nation. You do not need any resources to do that.”
While he, too, remains concerned that the peace agreement has not been implemented properly, he see some signs of progress: “for instance, people are going to school”. But he admits that the economic situation is troubling. Up to 4.8 million people face severe food shortages in the coming months — the highest level since internal conflict broke out in 2013, the UN said last month. An estimated 100,000 people have fled the country in recent months and inflation is approaching 300 per cent.
Both bishops agree that the Church has a role to play in reconciling a country that is experiencing sectarian conflict (News, 21 August). “We need to encourage people as South Sudanese rather than taking ethnicity in a negative sense,” Bishop Poggo said. “We need to appreciate our ethnic groups, but remember that we are all made in the image of God.”
Bishop Deng reports that the South Sudan Council of Churches sent a team of church leaders to Wau, where they were “well received by everyone”, including the government and displaced people. But, he said, “there is still a perception that certain churches belong to certain communities which we really need to work on so that people see the Church as a neutral body.”
No internally displaced people sought refuge at the Anglican cathedral in Wau, but many did at the nearby Roman Catholic cathedral, he points out. “However, generally the Church is still seen in South Sudan as the only neutral body with the authority and ability to unite South Sudanese at the movement.”
Other Church leaders have criticised the government. Government leaders were condemned as “devils” and “monkeys” by the Apostolic Administrator of the Roman Catholic diocese of Malakal, Mgr Roko Taban Mousa, during a service at St Joseph’s, an RC church in Juba, on the Sunday after the clashes.
“We have to definitely speak the truth without fear or favour; we don’t have to close our eyes when things are going wrong,” Bishop Poggo said. “I am a firm believer in what the former Archbishop of Kenya [David Gitari] said: the relationship between Church and State should be like the relationship between a human being and fire: if you are too close, it is too hot; if you are too far, it is too cold. . . Where they are not doing right we have a role to remind them. That can happen publicly or privately . . . We have a prophetic role to speak the truth at all times.”
The peace agreement includes the establishment of a Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing to investigate human-rights violations. Reports from both the UN and the African Union emphasised the importance of accountability for the atrocities perpetrated. Bishop Poggo believes that, while forgiveness is important, it is first “important to know what happened”.
Both bishops say, however, that they have hope. “I think in our context, you really have to have hope,” Bishop Poggo said; and Bishop Deng said that, as a Christian, “I have a hope that God will intervene in this situation. So, like David, I say my hope comes from the Lord.”