WASHINGTON — The
Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest independent country Saturday,
but it celebrated with questions and threats ending.
South Sudan marked its independence with a ceremony in
the capital of Juba, capping a bloody, lengthy path to
freedom. The celebration followed a two-decade-long civil war between the Arab
Islamic north and the mostly Christian south that ostensibly concluded with the
signing of a 2005 peace agreement.
That agreement, though its implementation is still incomplete, required a
referendum to determine the future status of the southern part of the country.
In January of this year, nearly 99 percent of the southern Sudanese who voted
in the referendum chose independence.
Questions still remain for the new state and its old country, such as: Where
exactly will the border between the two be, especially regarding the region of
Abyei? How will the revenues from the oil-rich south be divided? Will southern
Sudanese maintain citizenship rights if they continue to live in the north?
There is also the danger of militia forces possibly backed by Khartoum
fomenting unrest in South Sudan.
Despite the uncertainties, advocates for religious liberty and human rights
applauded the milestone.
It was “a long time in coming” for people who “paid a tremendous price,” Rep.
Frank Wolf, R.-Va., told Baptist Press.
Southern Baptist religious freedom leader Richard Land said July 9 “will be a
great day for southern Sudan
and its people.”
The southern Sudanese “have suffered terrible deprivations, and hundreds of
thousands have died under the brutal Khartoum
regime,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission
and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
(USCIRF). “Their 98 percent-plus vote for independence in the referendum was
compelling proof of their desire to rule themselves as an independent nation.
“Freedom-loving people around the world should celebrate with the people of
this propitious occasion,” he said, “and the world community should do
everything in its power to guarantee the full independence and sovereignty of
its new neighbor, the Republic of South
Faith McDonnell told Baptist Press her first reaction “is to be very happy for South
Sudan, to almost not be able to believe that it is happening.”
“It’s just a miracle, really,” said McDonnell, director of the Church Alliance
for a New Sudan at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said it would be “a tremendously exciting day for
the people of South Sudan and the world.”
In the written statement, Leo called it “a tremendous achievement for American
diplomacy and the work of the international community. Dedicated, bi-partisan efforts
spanning the administrations of Presidents Bill
Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama and numerous sessions of Congress, as
well as the tireless work of many special envoys to Sudan … were central to
achieving peace and creating” the Republic of South Sudan.
There are multiple concerns for the new country, longtime observers say. Wolf
told BP he expects the southern Sudanese “are going to have a lot of problems.”
The congressman, who has visited Sudan
five times since 1989, said his concerns include the lack of infrastructure,
the underdeveloped resources, the loss of a “whole generation” during the civil
war and the continued rule of Sudan
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
Yet, Wolf said, the southern Sudanese “have a lot of spirit and strong faith.
So I’m pretty optimistic that they’re going to do well.”
For Christians outside South Sudan, life can be expected
to be more difficult, Wolf and McDonnell told BP. Al-Bashir has said he plans
to enforce Shariah law in Sudan.
“I think we are going to see our Christian brothers and sisters going through a
really hard time if they are not in South Sudan,”
Wolf said, “I wouldn’t want to be a Christian living in downtown Khartoum,
and yet there are a number of them. (A)n amazing thing — the church is really
alive” in the south and part of the north.
As independence day for South Sudan neared, al-Bashir’s
military attacked regions at the border but not in the new country. Khartoum
forces invaded and bombed Abyei in May, driving more than 100,000 people from
their homes, the Enough Project reported July 7.
They began bombing the Nuba
Mountains in the state of South
Kordofan in early June, displacing more than 70,000 people, and
reportedly have practiced ethnic cleansing, according to the Enough Project.
South Sudan will occupy about the lower one-third of
what was formerly the largest African country in land area. The region of Abyei
rests in the middle of the border between Sudan and South Sudan, and the sides
have been unable to reach an agreement on how to determine its future. North
and south disagree on which residents in Abyei should be able to vote in a
Christians and others in the Nuba Mountains sided with the south in the long
civil war that was based largely on religious differences, with the militant
Arab Islamic forces backed by Khartoum pillaging Christian, animist and
moderate Muslim villages. It is estimated more than two million people in the
south and central parts of Sudan
died at the hands of the Khartoum-supported militia and another four million or
so were displaced.
While there has been some peaceful resolution in the south, the western region
of Sudan has
been the scene of ongoing, ethnic cleansing for the last eight years. Khartoum
military forces and Arab militias supported by the government have committed
widespread atrocities against African Muslims in Darfur. The genocide has
resulted in the killing of an estimated 300,000 people, as well as rampant
torture, rape and kidnapping. Nearly four million people have fled their homes
because of the attacks.
The U.S. State Department has designated Sudan
as one of only eight “countries of particular concern,” a category reserved for
the world’s worst violators of religious liberty.
USCIRF is a nine-member panel selected by the president and congressional
leaders. It reports to the White House and Congress on religious freedom
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)