JUBA, Southern Sudan — Breaking away from a government that imposes Islamic law may be a strong motivation in southern Sudan’s secession vote this week.

But the region, which has a significant Catholic population, may have a difficult future as an independent country. Nine out of 10 people live on less than $1 a day. Most of the land is either scrub or swamp. Half the people receive some form of international humanitarian assistance. And most people are illiterate.

Twenty-two years of war with the largely Islamic north of Sudan have taken a toll, not to speak of the 2 million civilians killed in the conflict. Cynical as it sounds, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has a point when he says that an independent southern Sudan will be a “failed state” from its inception, though in truth his own misrule and warmongering in the south has caused much of the suffering and destruction there, and hence the southerners’ desire for independence.

A U.S.-backed 2005 peace deal, which ranked among President George W. Bush’s main foreign-policy successes, gave the mainly Christian south a degree of self-government.

“The northerners tried to impose Arabism and sharia across Sudan,” said Father Philip Petia, a parish priest at St. Teresa’s Cathedral in Juba, the region’s capital. “Imagine if we tried to impose canon law on others in Sudan. You cannot govern a country with so many ethnic groups and identities with such a system.”

He said the Catholic Church was targeted by Khartoum throughout the 1983-2005 war.

“We were depicted as agents of the imperialists, or agents of Rome out to undermine Islam,” he said.

However, the Church and affiliated aid organizations and charities helped people suffering from war, disease and hunger, without fear or favor, he said. “Some people saw us for what we really are. We helped other Christians, Muslims, people from traditional beliefs, if they were hungry, thirsty, homeless, hurt. We did not ask for conversion or anything like that in return,” he said.

Now, as he asked during Mass here, he hopes that people vote peacefully, “in an orderly manner, and not to cause trouble.”

On the first day of voting, Sunday, Jan. 9, Father Petia’s church saw a visit from U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Salva Kiir, president of the government of Southern Sudan.

Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has made three trips to Sudan in recent months on behalf of the Obama administration. In an address to the congregation at St. Teresa’s, the former presidential candidate paid tribute to the people of southern Sudan.

Biblical Name?

Southern Sudan’s vote has attracted a foreign press entourage to an area that does not receive much media coverage, despite the history of war, famine, disease and the geopolitical contest being waged between the United States and China, which is a key investor in and buyer of Sudanese oil.

Earlier, at the Mass conducted in Bari, one of many local languages, Western journalists scurried in and out of the church, to the consternation of the nuns working as ushers. “Please, this is the consecration,” one implored, to which the cameraman and reporter responded, as if not hearing her pleas, “Is the president here? When will he be here?”

Father Petia estimates that two-thirds of southern Sudan’s Christians are Catholic, though in an area bigger than France, with no paved roads outside Juba, the infrastructure means that it is difficult to get around and establish exactly how many people live there.

Some of those clamoring for independence seem eager to establish historical and Christian credentials, and names such as Azania and Cushitia have been suggested as possible names for the country. The latter refers to the biblical land of Cush, which is thought to approximate this region.

Asked if he wants to see an independent southern Sudan, Father Petia commented, “This is an opportunity for us to express our will in a way that we have never had before.”

“We have our own culture and history here in the south,” he added. “It is better for us to be on our own.”

Register correspondent Simon Roughneen filed this story from Nuba, Southern Sudan.