Amid conflict and looming famine in South Sudan, the church offers hope
For the general overseer of the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC) there is trauma and hopelessness in his country, and the only institution that can offer hope at the moment is the church.
Rev. Dr Isaiah Majok Dau is also presiding bishop of the Sudan Pentecostal Church, which in turn belongs to an ecumenical council that includes all the traditions of Christianity in the country.
“We are experiencing levels of violence we have never seen before,” says the bishop.
“I talk as a church person, as a person who is involved in the situation every day, listening and hearing from both sides and the ordinary person in the street,” says quiet-spoken Dau, whose words carry a poignant power.
“I also talk to you as a child of war. Anyone who is in their sixties in South Sudan is a child of war. Some of us were born just after the first war broke out in 1955.
“We have lived in the war, have married in the war, we have children and grandchildren in war. It is not a good thing to be in that situation,” says the bishop.
He paid his first visit to Geneva and the World Council of Churches (WCC) on 27 March and attended a meeting of the Ecumenical Network of South Sudan – European Hub, which issued a pastoral message to the SSCC.
The message called for prayer and a “strong momentum of engagement and advocacy” to contribute to the scheduled visit of Pope Francis to South Sudan towards the end of the year, which could boost peace initiatives.
‘On the brink of collapse’
Dr Nigussu Legesse, WCC programme executive for advocacy in Africa, started the meeting saying, “South Sudan is on a brink of collapse – economically, socially, militarily and in other ways.
“It is engulfed in a mutually reinforcing war system that involves more than two principal players: the government led by the SPLM, and the opposition.”
SPLM stands for Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, a political party in South Sudan.
“The latest crisis in South Sudan is the declaration of famine by the government and also the United Nations, where 100,000 people are in danger of dying of famine and one million people are on the verge of that fate,” Legesse said.
There are 5.5 million people estimated to be currently severely food insecure and at least 7.5 million people across South Sudan – almost two thirds of the population – need humanitarian assistance.
“Three years conflict have eroded livelihoods and disrupted farming,” said Legesse.
He noted that in African countries “the first generation of liberation war heroes have felt entitled to maximise personal benefits after years or decades of sacrifice”.
Legesse cited among them, Zimbabwe, where 93-year-old Robert Mugabe has ruled for 37 years, Eritrea and Uganda.
When South Sudan became independent on 9 July 2011, after many decades of brutal war with Khartoum government forces in Sudan, the world was filled with optimism for the world’s newest nation, since the churches had played a key role in helping broker the process.
South Sudan is on a brink of collapse – economically, socially, militarily and in other ways
‘Community of nations’
“We thought South Sudan would be in the community of nations,” says Bishop Dau. “But then 2013 shattered that,” when people in South Sudan accelerated bitter conflicts within themselves.
During part of the earlier war, the one for independence, the bishop had managed to complete a masters and doctorate of theology from Stellenbosch University, South Africa, focussing on suffering and the role of the church in South Sudan.
“The events of the last few years are even more devastating because they come after we had a level of hope,” said Dau.
In December, however, the government in Juba managed to partly alleviate the situation in the capital.
“We in the church should extend it from Juba and across the country,” said the SSCC general overseer, explaining that churches in traditional communities are playing a conciliatory role.
“Whether the government will tap into that is a question for another day,” said Dau.
‘Message of hope’
“With the looming famine and economic state, we in the church are giving a message of hope. This is not just pie in the sky. Good will come of it if we work for it. The Gospel gives hope to the people.
“As a people we have been there. We have been in darker places before and we came out of it because we pulled together.”
Rev. Dr Andre Karamaga, general secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), concurred that, “this is a critical time for South Sudan”.
He said that the ecumenical family has been involved in South Sudan since the inception of the AACC in 1963.
The AACC leader also noted that when it comes to national church councils, “in Africa we have 14 countries in which all the churches are involved. South Sudan is among them.”
The SSCC includes Anglican, Orthodox, Pentecostal, and a wide swathe of Protestant traditions along with Roman Catholics, and Legesse said that the council always refers to itself as “the church”, which has been “inspiring”.
Bishop Dau said, “Somehow the people of South Sudan have belief at this time and we have hope in the churches. The church is the symbol of unity. It places a huge responsibility on us to remain together.
“Unity is beautiful, but it is not always easy. Why is it easier to be divided rather than united?”
He also conceded, “Part of the problem in South Sudan has been what we say, and hate speech has been a problem, even sometimes from the pulpit.”
In April 2016, a peace deal for South Sudan was struck, but it soon floundered.
Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen, senior advisor on peace and reconciliation at the SSCC, said at the Geneva meeting, “In Juba very few people have confidence that the peace agreement has any hope.”
He added, “People have used the word comatose and dead for the peace agreement…We have a divergent set of opinions where South Sudan is right now. There is a feeling that the situation is intractable.”
Habsburg-Lothringen said that there are divisions within the political sphere “with a very narrow band of people driving the conflict”.
The day before the ecumenical group met in Geneva, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, Eugene Owusu, strongly condemned the killing of six aid workers in an ambush on 25 March. The aid workers were travelling from Juba to Pibor.
“I am appalled and outraged by the heinous murder yesterday of six courageous humanitarians in South Sudan,” said Owusu. “At a time when humanitarian needs have reached unprecedented levels, it is entirely unacceptable that those who are trying to help are being attacked and killed.”