Southern Sudan has held to its identity since 1947 when the British organized the Juba Conference, which combined north and south into one political entity. Eight years later, in 1955, the first shots were fired and the south began its fight toward independence.
"The colonial administration drew the boundaries...they already knew the south was objecting to that kind of unity," said Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Adwok Oct. 20 during an interview with ENS in Washington, D.C.
"The south has never accepted the unity; Sudan has never been a united country."
After decades of civil war between north and south and millions of people dead and displaced, the south again is prepared to fight for independence this time -- with oversight from the international community -- preferring votes to guns.
An ecumenical delegation from Sudan, with representatives from the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches and the Sudan Council of Churches -- a 14-member-church Christian body -- has spent the last 12 days in the United States on an awareness and advocacy campaign aimed at educating and gaining support from the U.S. government, the international community, and church and humanitarian aid partners in advance of the Jan. 9 vote.
The vote, or referendum, is the final provision of Sudan's Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005 by the two warring parties -- Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the south and the north's Khartoum-based Government of Sudan. 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.
"We are here to alert the world and let the people know that there are people in the Sudan who don't want this referendum to take place," said Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal Church of Sudan in an interview in Washington, D.C. Oct. 20. "You have signed a comprehensive agreement, you have been given a chance to make it workable, you cannot come at this moment and say it's not workable."
Even as the delegation made the rounds, meeting with U.N. officials and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York, and U.S. government and international officials in Washington, D.C., news agencies reported a high-ranking government official in the north saying the referendum may need to be postponed until "border issues" can be resolved.
Postponement of the referendum, which can be interpreted as an inhibition to the southern peoples' right to self-determination, after six years' time allotted for preparation is not an option, the delegation explained.
"You cannot delay dignity to a person," Adwok said, adding that destruction gave way to reason when warring parties signed the CPA, and with that came the acknowledgment of the southerners' rights and human dignity.
"We understand the technical difficulties, but we've said, let the referendum go ahead and all the other things that haven't been resolved happen later," he said. "The issue of the border may take 50 years; the oil, a lifetime. These are issues that have been let to disrupt the rights of people."
The CPA also calls for equal oil revenue sharing between north and south (oil revenues account for 95 percent of Sudanese export revenues and 65 percent of government revenues, according to the International Monetary Fund); fair demarcation of north-south boundaries; and resolution of citizenship issues. A separate referendum is scheduled for the oil-rich region of Abyei, where residents will choose to join north or south.
The north has been accused of stalling the process in the leadup to the referendum and President Omar al-Bashir has said he will accept nothing short of "unity."
Ecumenism at its best
The Episcopal Church of Sudan and the Roman Catholic Church in Sudan represent two of the largest non-government organizations in southern Sudan. The Episcopal Church has 31 dioceses, 26 of them in the south. The Roman Catholic Church operates two archdioceses -- one in the north, including one diocese, and one in the south, including eight dioceses.
Together and with other Sudan Council of Churches members, they provide much-needed health, social and educational services to the people of southern Sudan, and also people in the north.
In addition to Deng, and Adwok, who serves as auxiliary bishop in Khartoum, the ecumenical delegation included Roman Catholic Bishop Emeritus Paride Taban of Torit; the Rev. Ramadan Chan, general secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches; and the Rev. Sam Kobia, ecumenical special envoy to Sudan and former general secretary of the World Council of Churches.
The delegation's mix represents "a very powerful witness of our ecumenical life together," said the Rev. John McCullough, executive director of Church World Service.
"I think whenever there is an opportunity for Roman Catholics and for Protestants to come together and talk about issues that are of critical importance to the life of the church and to our faithfulness, then we ought to uplift that and celebrate that," McCullough told ENS Oct. 13 prior to hosting a luncheon for the delegation at the Interchurch Center in New York.
"And certainly in the case of the Sudan, this is an extremely important moment for the churches to provide leadership for their people, and to talk about the future, what is a more hopeful and fruitful future, for the people of the Sudan."
When the history is written, Kobia said, the world will know that the churches in Sudan stood from the beginning for the south's right to self-determination in remarkable ways.
"The Sudanese churches have been working together in a way that I would say is fairly unique in the world today. The Protestant churches, the Catholic Church, the charismatic churches, all working in unity, particularly in addressing the pressing issues of Sudan today," said Kobia Oct. 13 following the luncheon at the Interchurch Center.
Chan, of the Sudan Council of Churches, further explained common cause during an interview Oct. 20 in Washington.
"It is that way because, first of all, the interests are the same -- churches are working for justice, for peace, for reconciliation -- because of that, that drove all the churches together for the common interest," he said. "That has worked well, especially during the war and now that the country is going through this major transition. We feel that we belong together because the major concern is the same, and being together has actually worked for us because we have a strong voice as all faith communities, and our message is the same, so that also widens our network."
Unitiy in defiance of unity
Identity in the north of Sudan is defined as Islamic and Arabic; in the south, Christian, charismatic and African identities prevail, explained Adwok, who lives in the north, adding that it was the Islamization of Sudan that brought the churches together.
"That made the church to take a strategic stand; our becoming ecumenical came later," he said. "At first the church decided they had to help the people. The churches found that their constituency was the same, the Christians and the poor people who the government were not addressing and were resisting the pressure to Islam. And the second, the government was looking at the Christian church as an institution that had to disappear.
"These are the main ecumenical pillars of which we have built our ecumenical movement: threat of being annihilated, and the fact of the services that we have to render to the people."
Christian churches first began working together in unprecedented ways in post-colonial Sudan, explained Taban, who co-founded the Sudan Council of Churches.
During colonial times, the British divided the south into zones: Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, etc. When the British left in 1956, the churches came together and today ecumenism can be found within families.
"â¦ We prefer to be united, in order not to be used against one another," Taban said. "And that is how the ecumenical situation in the Sudan is. It is very strong, it is very strong. In one family you might find that one of the sons is a Muslim, another is an Anglican, and another a Catholic. You see these are the differences you don't find maybe here in America, or even in Europe."