AKRON, Pa. – As southern Sudan moves toward becoming the world’s newest nation this July, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) workers in the war-torn region see people’s jubilation in the outcome of a January vote for independence – and a sense of the challenges in store for the new country.
“There is a euphoria and feeling of satisfaction on the ground,” says Leroy Willems, of Peoria, Ariz., after southern Sudanese voted overwhelmingly to form their own country. Willems and his spouse Joan serve as MCC Sudan representatives and live in Juba. “People are looking ahead with hopes for a better future.”
But the prospect of building a new nation is complex, and southern Sudan also must face the myriad obstacles, including poverty and a war-shattered infrastructure, that haunted the region before the voting began.
The Sudan Council of Churches, a longtime MCC partner organization that represents most churches in southern Sudan, has been a key part of working for peace and calling for prayers for peace through the vote. Leaders vow to continue encouraging development and to hold the new government accountable to create a country that meets the needs of the common person.
From 1983 to 2005, during the nation’s most recent civil war, more than 4 million people fled southern Sudan. Through years of neglect and fighting, much of the area was left without running water, electricity, paved roads, schools or health clinics. Since a peace agreement in 2005, some 2 million people have come back to southern Sudan, straining what infrastructure does exist. Approximately 180,000 have returned to the area since October 2010.
Aside from poverty and financial instability, the process of building a new nation brings its own questions and issues.
The border between the north and the south has not been finalized, and oil fields in the disputed area are a major point of contention, Willems notes. It’s not clear how oil revenue will be shared.
Of particular importance is the need for the constitution, which has not yet been written, to give voice to all ethnic groups, notes the Rev. Peter Tibi, executive director of Reconcile Peace Institute, an MCC partner organization, and a former executive secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches.
In this context, one of the strongest voices for peace and development is the church. During the war, it was the only institution that remained intact in southern Sudan, Willems notes. Indeed, MCC continues to support numerous efforts to build peace and increase livelihoods through church-related projects.
Now, though, Tibi and church leaders are calling on the new government to take on nationwide tasks to improve infrastructure and promote development.
As the new government focuses its efforts around the complexities of building a nation, Bruce Campbell-Janz, director of MCC’s programs in Africa, notes that Sudanese church leaders have vowed they will work to hold the government accountable for recognizing the voices of all people. “Your church is alive and well. We are here. We are witnesses,” said Catholic Archbishop Palolino Lukudo at the closing of a gathering between the government of southern Sudan and the Sudan Council of Churches in October.
“MCC’s role, then,” Campbell-Janz stresses, “is to walk alongside the local church in its work for peace and development.”
In the 101 days before voting began, the church in Sudan, MCC and other international and Sudanese groups urged people to pray for peace during the voting process, and for the most part, voting proceeded with few reports of violence. MCC now asks that people continue to pray for an open, transparent process to form a new constitution and for an inclusive government that meets the needs of all people, including minority groups.
“The call to prayer for peace from the Christian community in Sudan has resounded around the world. We thank MCC's supporting churches for their prayers for peace and justice as southern Sudan walks into a new future,” says Campbell-Janz. “As the concerted work of nation building begins, prayers from around the world continue to be an essential component of supporting the work of God’s children in southern Sudan.”
Go to mcc.org/sudancominghome to learn more about MCC’s commitment to support community and church efforts for lasting and peaceful progress in rebuilding a war-torn land.
Marla Pierson Lester is publications managing editor for MCC.