Christian organizations assist newly independent South Sudan

After enduring decades of oppression by Arab-dominated northern Sudan, South Sudan has finally gained its freedom.

Even though South Sudan's predominantly ethnic African people, most of whom are Christian, have thrown off the shackles of subjugation and broken away from the Islamist north, they still face many daunting challenges.

The civil war that pitted black Christian rebels in the south against Sudan's brutal regime killed an estimated two million people and displaced four million refugees.

Earlier this year, southern Sudanese cast their ballots in a referendum on national self-determination mandated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, which ended two decades of fighting.
Southerners voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence, and on July 9, the Republic of South Sudan was born.

However, the world's newest nation is among the poorest.

A myriad of problems confront the new national government in Juba, including a lack of clean water and food, a weak agricultural sector, a large internally displaced persons population and high maternal and child mortality rates.

Two Christian non-governmental organizations, Word Vision Canada and Caritas Internationalis, have been providing humanitarian assistance in the Sudans for over two decades. And their representatives say that they are prepared to help the new nation get on its feet.

World Vision is active in many states in South Sudan, including Upper Nile, Western Equatoria and Jonglei.

"World Vision began working in northern Sudan in 1983 and southern Sudan in 1989," says Amy Bennett, a spokesperson for World Vision Canada.

Recognizing that eradicating extreme poverty in South Sudan must be a top priority - more than half of the population lives on less than one American dollar per day, according to World Vision - Bennett says that the Christian charity is attempting to stimulate employment by promoting local agriculture and the production of staple food crops.

World Vision is providing essential health services to more than one million people in South Sudan, while delivering clean drinking water to and sanitation services for children and families.

Caritas Internationalis, the humanitarian and development agency of the worldwide Catholic Church, is also on the ground in South Sudan. The charity is addressing the many challenges confronting the new central African nation, says Kelly Di Domenico, communications officer for Development and Peace, the Canadian branch of Caritas.

"The birth of a new nation is such a rare and inspiring event, but it is just the beginning," Di Domenico writes in an e-mail.

"We can't lose sight of the needs in the new South Sudan, if we want to see the livelihoods of people improve."

According to Development and Peace, which has been active in Sudan for more than 25 years, South Sudan needs to build infrastructure, develop good governance and establish a commitment to peace and justice.

"As a first gesture of solidarity towards the new country," says Di Domenico, "Development and Peace contributed $250,000 towards a Caritas project to improve access to basic services, water, food, shelter, health and education" in South Sudan.

"Many of our projects have been in support of people gaining access to the democratic process, and it has been a long and arduous road for the people of South Sudan to gain their own country," Di Domenico says.

When the initial rush of hope and joy generated by Juba's declaration of independence inevitably fades, Christian organizations will almost certainly play a role in ensuring that optimism doesn't turn to bitterness and despair.

Despite the enormity of the challenges, World Vision is committed to helping the children and families of South Sudan in the years to come.

Similarly, Di Domenico says that Development and Peace "plans to continue to stand by the people of South Sudan as they build their new nation."

However, the role of Sudan's indigenous church in nation-building should not be understated, says John Lewis, a Sudan expert with KAIROS, an ecumenical coalition of Canadian churches that promotes human rights in Sudan and other countries around the globe.

"The Sudanese church has been building peace, providing basic services and serving millions of Sudanese across generations, as international aid actors have come and gone," he says of the church's central role in Sudanese society.

"Now more than ever," he says, "civil society groups in Sudan, including the churches, need Canada's support to help stem the return to war."

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Special to ChristianWeek

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian rights journalist. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.