South Sudan and the Church’s Quest for Peace in Africa

Across Africa, the Church’s clergy, religious and lay leaders are on the front lines of ethnic and religious conflict, even at the risk of their own lives, to build lasting peace.

Pope Francis greets President Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan during a spiritual retreat for South Sudan leaders at the Vatican April 11.
Pope Francis greets President Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan during a spiritual retreat for South Sudan leaders at the Vatican April 11. (photo: Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)

WAU, South Sudan — In a desperate appeal for peace, Pope Francis kissed the feet of South Sudan President Salva Kiir and its former vice president, Riek Machar, pleading with them to stop fighting with each other and become “fathers of the nation.”

“I ask you as a brother: Stay in peace,” Pope Francis said at an April 11 Catholic-Anglican-Presbyterian ecumenical summit at the Vatican with the leaders of South Sudan, before getting on his knees to ask them to end the civil war that has cost around 400,000 lives and driven 4 million people from their homes since 2013.

Forging lasting peace is a delicate process in South Sudan, which has seen more than 60 years of warfare, first with the (northern) Sudanese until a peace agreement in 2005, which led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011. However, two years later the predominantly Christian country once again broke into civil war, largely along ethnic divisions of its Nuer and Dinka peoples.

A summit in Ethiopia brought both sides together into a power-sharing agreement in 2015 with Kiir, who is Dinka and Catholic, as president and Machar, who is Nuer and Presbyterian, as vice president. This new unity government was short-lived, after fighting between Kiir’s and Machar’s troops broke out in July 2016 within Juba, the capital city. A truce was reached in December 2017, followed by a new peace framework signed in September 2018.

The Church in South Sudan has been working hard at the local level to instill a desire for peace and harmony. As with many countries in Africa, the Church’s leaders walk a dangerous line mediating the various ethnic, religious or language divisions, risking in some cases violence and persecution.

South Sudan’s population of 12 million is 60.5% Christian, 32.9% African folk religion and 6% Muslim, according to the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project. The Church has a certain degree of respect and authority won by decades of suffering side by side with the South Sudanese people in their darkest hours.

“During the crises, it is the Church that people look to for a peaceful refuge,” Salesian Sister Dolores Alphonso told the Register, speaking from Wau, a city in the northwest of South Sudan. The Salesian sisters run four school campuses in the country, each with a thousand students.

But the Church’s properties are considered by all sides as sanctuary, and Sister Dolores said many people have stayed on their campuses since the fighting resumed in 2016, because they feel safe from violence there.

“Even our schools have become refugee camps,” he said.

Sister Dolores, who has been in missions both in Ethiopia and South Sudan since 2002, said the Church’s ability to provide refuge and carry out its activities without grave harm is due to the fact that “people respect us and know our work.”

Sister Dolores said the Church is trying to build a sustainable peace at the grassroots level through with the message of the Gospel. The Church, through its diocesan, religious and charitable agencies, she explained, has facilitated reconciliation meetings, provided trauma healing services, and forged ahead with promoting education — much of it funded through the Solidarity With South Sudan fund. The Salesian efforts are funded through the Salesian Missions’ African Crisis Fund.

“The more united we are, the more progress the country will make,” she said. The most important witness for the Church is that they are “present with them and share life on a daily basis.”

The Salesian sister said their schools are trying to provide steady meals and a safe environment for the children. They teach the children to “live as brothers and sisters.” The message helps the children push back against the message that people of different ethnicities are “enemies.”

Sister Dolores said they are making progress, but like much in South Sudan, progress is made with “10 steps ahead and then fivI steps back.” Building conversion and reconciliation on the ground is key to lasting peace, but she acknowledged, “It may take a long time.”


Does Peace Have a Chance?

Pope Francis’ dramatic gesture for peace, however welcome, is not expected to make an immediate impact on South Sudan’s quest for a lasting peace.

The South Sudanese bishops in a February 2019 pastoral letter outlined their concerns that the 2018 peace agreement, called the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS), is “fatally flawed” to bring about peace, lacked leadership with the will to implement it, and warned that both sides were just getting ready for the next round of fighting.

“Politics alone will not resolve the conflicts in South Sudan,” the bishops stated.

The bishops’ pastoral letter said the peace agreement has not been widely disseminated and, in some cases, has been manipulated or outright violated. Killing, sexual violence and other human-rights abuses continue alongside environmental exploitation for foreign profit.

The letter stated the nucleus for a national South Sudanese army has not been formed, and demobilization and demilitarization of civilian centers has not taken place. It also alleged the government is funding little of the agreement’s implementation and questioned how money was being spent while the people were in dire economic straits or dislocated internally or abroad as refugees.

“While many ordinary people long for peace, there is no will or commitment for peace amongst many of our leaders, hate speech and propaganda about, and there is a thirst for revenge amongst many of our communities,” they stated. “What is needed is conversion, a change of heart, amongst individuals and communities. … Only then will the political efforts bear fruit.”


Fear, Mistrust and Rivalry

Fear and mistrust continue to plague South Sudan, and the horror of a potential famine is now on the horizon, according to Neil Corkery, board president of the Sudan Relief Fund. The organization works through the local Church to provide humanitarian relief, medical aid and education in South Sudan.

Corkery said the Pope made clear to South Sudan’s leaders during a March 16 papal audience that once a peace agreement is in place “his top priority is to come down and visit the people.”

“There’s so much suffering there; he was saying: ‘You’ve got to make it work,’” Corkery said.

Since South Sudan’s independence in 2011 from the Muslim-majority north, the underlying ethnic rivalries have reasserted themselves. The country has more than 60 indigenous ethnic groups, with the Dinka (32%) and the Nuer (16%) having the largest shares of the population.

“The tribalism is as bad as ever,” he said, adding one-third of South Sudan’s population is now displaced as a result of the fighting. He added their return will likely take place years, not months, after a peace agreement is firmly established.

“Nobody is moving back for quite some time here to their homes,” he said.

Salesian Father Shyjan Job, who serves at the Don Bosco center in Gumbo, an area on the outskirts of Juba, told the Register the Salesian priests and brothers have continued to take care of more than 10,000 displaced persons who took refuge at the Don Bosco center since fighting broke out there in 2016. They have even added more displaced families over the past couple of years, putting even greater strain on their school, which also serves 4,500 students.

“We are doing our best to help the people under our care,” he told the Register via Skype.

Father Shyjan said he also has strong doubts that peace will take root in South Sudan anytime soon.

“The gesture of the Pope was very noble, but we don't think it is going to bring any lasting impact on our situation here,” he said.


Amid the Crossfire of Conflicts

The Catholic Church in many regions of Africa has its hands full proclaiming the Gospel against deep religious and tribal conflict and disruptions stemming in part from European colonial rule that ended abruptly following World War II. Catholic priests and religious have become numbered among the dead, as the Church is caught in this continuing crossfire of violence.

Cameroon is caught in a bloody conflict between its English- and French-speaking people, which has roots in the English-French division of the country following World War I. The French-speaking government has stormed Catholic hospitals, hunting down Anglophone secessionists.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Catholic Church has had a tense relationship with the government, as priests and nuns there have been killed due to the Church’s long-standing opposition to political corruption and human-rights abuses. The Church’s friction with the government increased following allegations the December 2018 Congolese presidential elections ended with a fraudulent result orchestrated by outgoing President Joseph Kabila. The Church’s leaders said it will respect the election of Felix Tshisekedi as president, but believed Martin Fayulu was the true winner.

Edward Clancy, the director of outreach for Aid to the Church in Need, told the Register that the Democratic Republic of Congo is “the epitome of the major problems of Africa” — the country is resource-rich yet undermined by corruption and violence, which keep its people poor, living on barely $1 a day.

But Clancy said that the Church in Africa is also struggling with the influx of Islamist militants who have carried out attacks in many countries across Africa, such as Somalia, Sudan, Chad, Nigeria, Central African Republic and Kenya, which can also have a destabilizing “contagion effect” on their neighbors.

“You’ve got the problems of one country that flow into another country,” he said. Clancy explained the terrorist group Boko Haram, or Islamic State West Africa Province, based in Nigeria’s northeast, is still active despite the Nigerian government’s declaration of victory in 2015. The Islamist militants operate in Nigeria’s Borno state (roughly the size of Ireland) and have caused havoc in neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon, killing tens of thousands and displacing 2.3 million people since 2009. The Nigerian army is overstretched, underequipped and has dangerously low morale, according to analysts.

“Nigeria is in a very tenuous situation,” Clancy said. If Nigeria exploded in violence, either from the government collapsing or a coup, Clancy said, it could lead to 100 million displaced people flooding across central and Eastern Africa.


Building Alternatives to War

Much like in South Sudan and other countries, the Church is working to build lasting peace in people’s hearts and provide an alternative to warfare.

Clancy said one initiative backed by Catholic leaders in Nigeria “to confront radical Islam” involves bringing Catholic and Muslim students together at vocational centers to learn a trade to support their families and learn about each other’s faith. Clancy added that Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Abuja told him the Muslim students benefit from having Islamic scholars provide a nuanced and intellectual appreciation of their faith tradition, instead of the fundamentalist approach of radical street-corner imams.

In Nigeria, Clancy said, the Church’s leaders provide a space for people to meet and resolve conflicts peacefully. Archbishop Kaigama has provided both his presence and his archdiocesan offices to Muslim community leaders who requested his help to mediate disputes with Christian leaders, and “that alone provided credibility for both sides to come together and talk.”

“That’s the kind of thing that the Church can do very well.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.