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Can churches keep the peace?

Current Affairs

Can churches keep the peace?

A fragile peace agreement, signed at the end of August, has brought to a halt a bitter four-and-half-year-old civil war in South Sudan. During decades of conflict, both the Catholic and Anglican churches cooperated to help stem the turmoil. But can the churches now ensure that the peace will hold? Report by James Jeffrey.

In South Sudan the new power- sharing deal finally signed at the end of August, helped put a stop to a four-and-a-half year civil war, which has killed thousands and created Africa’s largest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Church leaders have been playing a pivotal role in making this happen, as they always have in South Sudan.   

Despite the celebrations that greeted the announcement, though, everyone is aware that previous peace deals have held for only a matter of months before fighting resumed. Hence the role played by a coalition of Christian churches may prove critical, as it has throughout 50 years of struggle in the country.

During these decades of destruction and failed politics, the different denominations banded together to work toward peace, displaying a level of inter-religious cooperation rarely seen in the world.

The churches emerged as one of the country’s few stable institutions as politicians continued to fail the people. “The churches in South Sudan operate very ecumenically – this is rare worldwide,” says John Ashworth, who has worked in South Sudan, including advising its churches, for more than 30 years.

“The churches as bodies have remained united in calling for an end to the killing, [and] a peaceful resolution through dialogue, peace and reconciliation, in some cases at great personal risk.”

South Sudan’s churches embraced an ecumenical approach to establish in 1990, the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC), which spearheaded efforts that proved heavily influential in the 2005 peace deal that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war.

The SSCC continued its involvement in the process that led to the January 2011 referendum on independence, in which an overwhelming majority of South Sudanese voted to secede. The country formally gained independence from Sudan on 9 July 2011.

But all those achievements began to unravel in 2013 when South Sudanese government troops began massacring ethnic Nuer in the capital, Juba. Afterwards, the national army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), split along ethnic lines during a violent uprising, pitting ethnic Dinka loyal to President Salva Kiir against Nuer led by former Vice-President Riek Machar.

Both sides committed atrocities, while the narrative of fighting for religious freedom was manipulated for political advantage. The SPLA have painted themselves as Christian liberators – atrocities notwithstanding – their propaganda referring to the churchgoing President Kiir as the “Joshua” who took South Sudan to the promised land of independence.

“The blood of the tribe has become thicker than the blood of the Christ,” Episcopal Bishop Enock Tombe remarked in 2014.

Christian roots

Although Islam has dominated the region for centuries, Christian roots in Sudan and South Sudan go back to the 5th century. Missionaries were active in the 1800s, mainly from the Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic and Coptic churches.

“The current war has divided people along ethnic lines – the church is not immune to these divisions,” says Carol Berger, an anthropologist who specialises in South Sudan.

Earlier this year, James Wani Igga, South Sudan’s Vice-President, accused priests of promoting violence, while others have accused the church of inaction during the latest civil war.

Ashworth suggests that after the 2005 peace agreement, the SSCC “took a breather to rebuild and repair”, with the 2011 outbreak of war catching them unprepared. Subsequently it has taken church leaders longer than expected to rebuild capacity, but now the SSCC is acting to make up for lost ground.

The choosing of a new secretary general marked a good start, says Philip Winter, a South Sudan specialist who has long been engaged in its peace processes. He also notes how the SSCC was called upon by the negotiating warring parties to help them get over their differences – something the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) had failed to do as a mediator. 

“The SSCC recognised that is was perhaps not as effective as the most recent conflict required,” Winter says. “So they are once more playing an important, if discreet, role.”

The agreement, first hammered out in June, suggests this role has borne fruit. But observers note how the latest deal – calling for the opening of corridors for humanitarian aid, the release of prisoners of war and political detainees, the withdrawal of forces, and a transitional unity government to be formed within four months and which will govern for 36 months – is essentially the same as the agreement signed in 2015 that collapsed after about a year.

Already there are signs of strain over the latest peace proposal. At the end of August, Riek Machar initially refused to sign a draft, bristling at how the agreement mandates three different capitals for South Sudan – an attempt to distribute power – and allows IGAD to deploy forces into the country to supervise the permanent ceasefire.

“We reject the three capitals –South Sudan is one country – and we reject foreign forces coming into our land,” opposition spokesperson Garang Mabior said. 

Aware of such challenges and the time taken to achieve consensus, the SSCC’s renewed impetus includes implementing a national Action Plan for Peace (APP), which recognises the need for a long-term peace process to resolve not only the current conflict but also the unresolved effects of previous conflicts. The SSCC says the APP may continue for 10 or 20 years.

At this stage of the plan, the SSCC hopes to see a visit to the country by Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church. The Pope postponed a planned 2017 South Sudan trip with Justin Welby, the head of the Anglican Church. Most media assumed that decision was based on the country being too dangerous to visit. But Welby told media the visit was postponed to ensure it would have the maximum impact in helping to establish peace. 

“You’re playing a heavyweight card and you have to get the timing right,” he said. “You don’t waste a card like that on anything that is not going to work.”

Perhaps the moment to play that card has now come. Observers note there are reasons for cautious optimism regarding the latest proposal. This time around there is more impetus for peace: the people of South Sudan are fed up with the conflict, while the elites on both sides of the conflict have run out of money and know how peace could allow the country’s oil industry to provide the cash they need to hold on to power.

“The churches are the only players left standing on the South Sudan stage who have any moral credibility and national recognition,” Winter says. NA

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