In January 2011 the people of South Sudan are expected to vote in a referendum that will determine the future of Africa's largest country, a country with a long history of civil war, and rich in oil and other natural resources.
Most experts believe the south will vote for independence.
"I think the south is going to become an independent power in January, one way or another; I hope it's not through a unilateral declaration of independence. I hope it is through a formal referendum," said Georgetown University Professor Andrew S. Natsios, who has years of experience working for the U.S. government on development and humanitarian aid issues in Sudan.
Natsios spoke to more than 50 people gathered June 5 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, for the fourth annual American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan conference: "Sudan in Crisis: How Can We help?"
With 31-dioceses, 26 of them in the south, and an estimated up to 4 million members, the Episcopal Church of Sudan is one of the largest non-government organizations in southern Sudan. Diplomats, former ambassadors, Episcopal bishops, advocates, humanitarian and development workers, a southern Sudan government official and others interested in preserving peace and facilitating a peaceful path to southern Sudan's independence -- should it come to pass -- attended the June 4-6 conference.
"This year's conference comes at a time of particular importance given the upcoming election," said Richard Parkins, AFRECS' executive director. "The stakes are very high and there is a tremendous amount of work to be done between now and January."
The January referendum is a provision of Sudan's Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in 2005 by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the south and the north's Khartoum-based Government of Sudan headed by President Omar al-Bashir. The CPA ended a 21-year civil war -- fought by the Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the Christian-animist south -- that killed more than 2 million people and displaced an estimated 7 million more.
Al-Bashir, a Sunni Muslim, was re-elected in an April election -- the country's first multi-party election in 24 years -- which has been characterized as fraudulent by many in the international community. Al-Bashir is the first head of state to be re-elected while facing war crimes charges.
In March 2009, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where government-backed militia continue to attack civilians and raid refugee camps.
During a June 5 workshop/panel discussion to address the prognosis of the CPA, former British Ambassador to Sudan Alan Goulty, now a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, advised listeners against choosing sides.
"When you look at the talk of the independence of the south â¦ we are not campaigning on one side or the other. It is very important, as it is in the Darfur context, that we donât lead the southern Sudanese to expect that if they can't do a deal on oil revenues and the money stops flowing, that the United States is going to write checks [to cover the income of southern Sudan], to keep the country going three, four, five years until it can export oil directly by Kenya," he said.
Oil revenues account for 95 percent of Sudanese export revenues and 65 percent of government revenues: in the south it accounts for 98 percent of total revenues; in the north its 65 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The CPA calls for equal oil revenue sharing between north and south; the south has the oil reserves, which it transports to the north through pipelines to port on the Red Sea. Should the south secede from the north, the CPA calls for six months of separation negotiations to demarcate the north-south boundary, issues of citizenship -- there are 2 million southern Sudanese living in the capital Khartoum -- and sharing of the country's estimated $35 billion debt.
Experts predict a massive southern migration to follow a secession vote, and, if that happens, the church could play an important part in reconciliation.
"I think churches are well placed to do whatever they can to encourage reconciliation and agreement among Sudanese, and to do so without taking sides because that is going to be necessary whatever the outcome of the referendum," Goulty said. "Southern Sudanese and northern Sudanese are condemned to live as neighbors."
The Central Intelligence Agency estimates the population of Sudan at 42 million people -- 70 percent Sunni Muslim and 5 percent Christian, with most Christians living in the south. Indigenous beliefs account for the majority of the remaining percentage.
Formed in 2005, AFRECS is a 200-member network of individuals, churches, dioceses and other organizations that seeks to focus attention on the priorities of the Episcopal Church of Sudan and enable American friends to assist the church in meeting the needs of the Sudanese people.
"We are very much interested in the future of Sudan, whether it be as a divided country or as a united country. Particularly we have a concern for the protection of the Christian community for whom we have advocated for so many years," Parkins said, in an interview the ENS. "If there is not peace in Sudan, and if the referendum results in conflict and violence, this could have a destabilizing effect on the region. The stakes are not only high for the Sudanese people, but for East Africa."
To help, Parkins suggests that people first become aware of Sudan and its history of crisis, educating themselves, others, and church communities, and by asking elected officials and the Obama administration for a "robust" U.S. policy that holds the CPA's partners to "its faithful implementation." Otherwise, Parkins said, he fears that "peace will unravel and violence will become even more severe than it is already."
Bul Garang Mabil, 26, of Jackson, Mississippi, represented the Diocese of Mississippi's Sudanese Ministry Committee at the conference.
In the CPA workshop, Mabil stood up and asked Deng Deng Nhial, deputy head of mission and finance and trade investment officer for the Government of Southern Sudan Mission in the USA, and one of the panelists: "What is the opportunity for the lost boys?"
Nhial spoke of south Sudanern in the context of a "failed state," and acknowledged the lack of educated and trained people necessary to run the country, the predicted southern migration, boundary and citizenship issues, an insufficient banking system, and the difficulty in organizing the referendum itself.
Sudan's two back-to-back civil wars left its institutions destroyed, and people with skills and means left the country. In negotiating a separation agreement, Nhial said, the north and south will need expert help.
"No one wants a return to war," he said.
One of the "Lost Boys of Sudan" Mabil arrived in Jackson in December 2000, after living in a refugee camp in Kenya. He went on to graduate from high school and earn a degree from Millsaps College, a private liberal arts school in Jackson. He now works from the Mississippi Department of Health.
"I hope that the peace will prevail in our country because our people have suffered so much. Right after the CPA was signed, we were very happy to see peace come our country â¦ We hope that if this peace is maintained, development will come to our country," he said in an interview after the workshop.
Many of the lost boys navigated the refugee camps and eventually landed in the United States. Some of them, like Mabil, and John Juarwel, a student at the University of Mississippi who also attended the conference, have gone on to higher education.
"They have the know-how, but the problem is how to take that back and be productive members of society," Mabil said.
In his experience, Natsios, the professor and Sudan expert, said the most important thing people can do to help Sudan is focus their efforts on building private institutions, including primary and secondary schools and colleges, with connections to funding sources outside Sudan.
In 1999, Jennifer and Darryl Ernst, members of Christ Church in Glen Allen in the Diocese of Virginia, became involved with efforts by St. Bartholomew's Church in Richmond to resettle Sudanese refugees. Later they came to know Maker Mabor Marial, a lost boy who eventually became like a son to them, Jennifer Ernst said.
In December 2004, the Ernsts and Marial founded Hope for Humanity, Inc., an organization dedicated to educating future leaders in Sudan. Their efforts resulted in Hope and Resurrection School, an Episcopal secondary school now in its third year serving 137 students, 33 of them girls, in grades 9, 10 and 11 (one new class has been added every year).
Located in the village of Atiaba, in the Diocese of Akot, Hope and Resurrection has an open admittance policy and is run by a Sudanese headmaster with 30 years' education experience, Ernst said.
The Ernsts raised money for the school by telling the Hope for Humanity story in churches throughout the diocese, garnering support mostly one small donation at a time, Jennifer Ernst said.
In another example, Carol Francis-Rinehart, co-founder and director, and Daniel Majok Gai, board member, explained in an interview with ENS, how Denver, Colorado-based Project Education Sudan is working with local populations to build schools and create a framework for education in four Jonglei State communities, including the Marc Nikkel Cathedral Primary School, a project undertaken in partnership with the Diocese of Southwest Virginia and Christ Church Cathedral in the Diocese of Indianapolis.
Gai will move back to Sudan next year to work with Project Education Sudan in country, to help communities create micro-economies to support their schools.
To learn more about Project Education Sudan's other projects, teacher training, financial literacy, water wells, etc., click here.
The Episcopal Church's long-standing support for Sudan is manifested through its partnerships and companion diocese relationships, programs supported by Episcopal Relief & Development, and advocacy work of the Office of Government Relations.
Last July, the Episcopal Church's General Convention passed legislation in support of a lasting peace in Sudan. Through the companion relationships, Episcopal dioceses in the U.S. have supported critical social services including schools, clinics, water wells and church construction.
Ernst also serves as partnerships coordinator for the Episcopal Church of Sudan. During a workshop focused on companion diocese relationships, Ernst said that many of the church's 31 dioceses are looking for partners: from prayer partnerships, friendships, to buying desks or other education materials, to building schools and cathedrals.
"It's really important to have partnerships when we step out of our comfort zone and share a friendship with people from another country and another culture," Ernst said.
Forming a companion relationship with the Diocese of Kajo Keji transformed the Diocese of Bethlehem in northeast Pennsylvania.
"We have churches where there aren't towns anymore," said Bethlehem Bishop Paul Marshall, explaining the impact of coal mining on the region.
The diocese's relationship with Sudan started with a Sudanese seminarian from Virginia Theological Seminary sharing his story about growing up in civil war-torn Sudan. A few visits to refugee camps in Uganda, and eventually, a trip to Sudan, the diocese with a $1.2 million annual budget, set out to raise $3.2 million for its New Hope Campaign and has raised more than $4.4 million to date, Marshall said.
"Leadership has to have a vision. The group itself will not exceed the passion of the leadership. I think that is the key point. If you are in a partner relationship and haven't gotten your bishop over there, this would be the time," he said.
The New Hope Campaign is dedicated to rebuilding a college destroyed by war and building a primary and a secondary school in Kajo Keji. Recognizing that it is a small organization set on rebuilding a college in another country, the diocese sought outside professional consultation to teach leaders how to ask for money. Marshall, himself, has pledged enough money to the project that he has had to extend his work life by two years, he said.
"This a theological enterprise," Marshall said. "The congregations that are functioning are the ones whose focus is on mission â¦ Eventually it became clear that what we were doing was inviting people to enter into a kind of unity with Christ that they hadn't experienced â¦ as a group."