By Paul Jeffrey
Catholic News Service
SEATTLE (CNS) — Catholic bishops in Sudan and South Sudan said there are "no quick fixes" to the conflict that has ravaged South Sudan in recent weeks, but called for an end to government corruption and a greater involvement of the church in the peace process.
"We have witnessed things that should never have taken place on the soil of this nation, as brother fought against brother, leading to so much unnecessary death and displacement of individuals and communities, with many fleeing as refugees to neighboring countries, and the most appalling destruction. We cannot remain silent in the face of what we have witnessed and heard," wrote the bishops from the two countries, who remain united in one episcopal conference.
In a Jan. 30 letter issued in Juba, South Sudan, the bishops called for "repentance and conversion of heart" and said "corruption and nepotism have contributed to the destabilization" of the country.
"We cannot allow South Sudan to fail due to the actions of a few who are immune to the suffering of their own people, who personalize political power, turning their positions of public service into opportunities for personal enrichment and nepotism," they wrote.
A rift within the ruling party led to the outbreak of violence in mid-December. President Salva Kiir had earlier in the year ousted Vice President Riek Machar, and when soldiers loyal to each man reportedly turned on each other, the violence spread quickly from Juba, the capital, to several rural areas. It also took on ethnic overtones, as Kiir is a Dinka and Machar a Nuer. Tension between the two tribes has lurked behind the scenes since independence in 2011.
Saying "internal party disputes should not be allowed to destabilize the nation," the bishops called for "democratic reform" of the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.
They also said changes in the country’s military are particularly urgent.
Kiir has bought loyalty from several renegade militia leaders by incorporating them into the army. As a result, the bishops stated, "Our army has grown in size … and has become a significant cost to our nation, at the expense of investment in development priorities. It lacks cohesion. We are conscious of the need to address reconciliation within the armed forces themselves. There is no longer any place for personal militias."
The country’s military is called the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and the bishops said that needed to change.
"Our national army needs a new name, not associated with a single political party. A professional army should never be involved in politics," their statement said.
The bishops played key roles as advocates and mediators in the process leading to a historic 2005 peace agreement that set a path toward the South’s ultimate independence. They have also played critical roles in mediating local conflicts within South Sudan, such as tribal tension in restive Jonglei state.
Yet they did not participate in talks held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to address the current conflict. Those talks produced a cease-fire agreement Jan. 23.
The bishops questioned their exclusion from the Addis Ababa negotiations.
"Why is it that only those who took up arms are discussing the future of our country? What is the legitimacy of any agreement signed in Addis Ababa built on military groups determining our future? A handful of political leaders instigated a crisis in which their followers have devastated the country; how can they alone be entrusted with negotiating the future of the nation without input from the citizens?" the bishops asked.
Much of the violence in the current conflict has taken place in the sprawling Diocese of Malakal, where the church is spread thin. The bishops, believing this lack of pastoral presence has contributed to the ease with which armed conflict spread in recent weeks, promised new attention to the diocese, including "more local personnel, missionaries and other resources."
The bishops appealed to humanitarian agencies to provide support for the area, while not forgetting other war-torn areas in the two countries, including Darfur and the Nuba Mountains in the north, and the contested border region of Abyei.
The document was signed by 11 members of the episcopal conference. One member, Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Adwok Kur of Khartoum, was prevented from traveling to the meeting after Sudanese government security agents seized his passport, according to news reports. Tension between church leaders and the government in Khartoum have dramatically deteriorated since the South became independent.
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Editor’s Note: Paul Jeffrey has spent months in South Sudan reporting on the situation there.
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