The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops continues to support the Sudanese bishops, says Stephen Hilbert, adviser on Africa to the USCCB’s Office of International Justice and Peace. But bringing international pressure to bear can be difficult.
The whereabouts of three workers for Sudan Aid, part of the international Catholic aid agency Caritas, continues to be unknown. They were arrested last month by government security personnel in Nyala, Darfur, in Sudan.
The arrests, according to a Sudanese priest, were seemingly related to the outbreak of hostilities between Sudan and South Sudan over border areas in dispute since the southern country, mostly Christian and animist, gained independence from the predominantly Muslim northern country last July.
South Sudan’s Catholic bishops have renewed their call for the international community to pressure the governments of the two Sudans to negotiate their differences. In Juba, the capital of South Sudan, Archbishop Paulino Lokudu Loro called the behavior of the two governments “shameful and condemned what Juba and Khartoum are doing to take the two nations back to suffering.” He made the remarks at a Mass on April 16, according to a report from the South Sudan News Service.
Father Michael Okello, an instructor at St. Paul National Seminary in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, linked the arrests to a new law enacted early in April that declared all southern nationals to be foreigners and required them to register and pay a hefty fee or return to South Sudan.
He also blamed the hostilities as provoked by South Sudan’s brief occupation of the disputed oil-rich district of Heglig.
“Paramilitary forces in the north are arresting young southern men who they are afraid might join [the southern army] or report on security issues in the north,” Father Okello told the Register from Juba.
While many southern nationals want to return to their homeland and avoid a feared persecution, all direct travel between the two countries has been blocked. While Father Okello was able to fly to the south on April 24 via Ethiopia, “most people cannot afford air travel. They are waiting, many of them in the open air, with all their belongings, for lorries [trucks]. But nothing is coming. This makes it very difficult for most people,” Father Okello said.
Southern Sudanese may stay in the north under the new law, but only with great difficulty. “They must get documentation [from South Sudan] proving they are citizens of South Sudan and prove they have a reason to stay,” he said. The reason to stay, in most cases, would be a job, “but all southerners have been laid off from their jobs with the police, the civil service and the army. And once they leave the country, they will find it very hard to get back in.”
Church workers and priests may also not be able to return, even with jobs.
Father Okello said the government of Sudan wants sharia (Islamic law) to prevail in Sudan, “and they are afraid that Christians will make converts from Islam.”
Patrick Nicholson, spokesman for Caritas International in Rome, said nothing is known about the status of the three arrested staffers, Dominic Pathic, James Celestino and William Atojorny.
Nicholson said the Caritas office in South Darfur has been closed and its other staff all sent home, which would impede the ecumenical effort to deliver food and other forms of aid to the half-million refugees in Darfur. These are the battered victims of the long conflict between north and south that has killed 4 million people.
Now, military actions are escalating. After southern military forces occupied Heglig and then withdrew, the Sudanese air force bombed South Sudanese villages, according to an April 24 Associated Press story.
And in Khartoum, civilians attacked and burned a Presbyterian Bible school. “Caritas International finds it deeply concerning,” Nicholson said. Caritas appealed, in an April 24 statement, “to Sudan and South Sudan to stop military actions along the border. It’s not too late for both governments to check the momentum leading to an all-out war.”
The USCCB’s Hilbert said bringing international pressure to bear on Sudan can be difficult. The U.S. government, for example, has severed diplomatic relations with Sudan. But the U.S. is working with China, which has made an exception to its usual policy of staying out of the domestic affairs of other countries in the case of the two Sudans because of oil. China is the main investor in the region’s oil development and the main consumer of its oil, says Hilbert. China has announced it is working with the U.S. to bring the two governments together.
“This dispute is largely about oil and power,” Hilbert told the Register. Before South Sudan won independence, oil accounted for 95% of government revenues there and 50% of government revenues in the north.
But the two governments disagree over revenue sharing of the resource lying mainly in South Sudan, with Khartoum demanding $36 per barrel to allow the oil through its pipelines to the sea, while South Sudan offers $1 per barrel.
After Sudan acted unilaterally, seizing $815 million in South Sudanese oil, Juba shut down production. Both governments have moved troops into disputed oil-producing border areas, while Sudan has also engaged in military operations against what it sees as rebel forces in southern regions of Sudan, such as South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
As a result of the latest outbreaks and constant fighting between north and south since Sudan won independence from Great Britain in 1956, there are now more than 2 million Sudanese refugees, mostly in Sudan, but also in South Sudan and bordering Ethiopia.
The Sudanese bishops and the international community fear that total could rise far higher with an outbreak of total war between the two countries.
The U.S. bishops, in a November letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called for pressure on Sudan to end the bombing of its own citizens and guarantee the status of all Sudanese within its borders.
However, they said, “The protection of the rights of the Christian minority is of particular concern to our conference, given Sudan’s history.”
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.