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Sudan: the calm before the storm?

Catholic World News - January 11, 2011

Two Sudanese bishops expressed concerns about the possibility of military conflict, persecution, and humanitarian disaster following the weeklong referendum on southern Sudanese independence.

“The people are voting en masse, and so far the voting procedures have taken place in calm,” said Bishop Edward Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio. Nonetheless, Bishop Kussala expressed concern about possible attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army:

The LRA leadership seems to be divided between two options: attack during the referendum or wait for its conclusion and see if a new military operation will be taken against them by the armies of the Countries threatened by this group (Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and South Sudan) with American support. In this case, the LRA will attack different parts of southern Sudan. It seems to have prevailed (the second option).

Bishop Macram Max Gassis of El Obeid likewise expressed concern about a massive humanitarian tragedy if the estimated four million southern Sudanese who live in the north return to Sudan.

Two weeks ago I was in the County of Twic in Northern Bahr El Ghazal, where I was told by local authorities 50,000 southern Sudanese have already returned. These people are unloaded from trucks in the middle of nowhere. They do not even have a decent bed to sleep in. There is only one distribution point for water. Mosquito nets, food, and medicine are lacking.
Bishop Gassis also expressed concern that Catholics remaining in the north would be subject to humiliating dhimmitude or outright persecution.

What will become of the Church in the north, once Sudan is divided into a Christian and animist southern State, and into a largely Muslim northern State? I am afraid that the Catholics who remain, along with the Coptic Orthodox, risk being treated as “protected” under the strictest interpretation of Sharia law, and therefore risk becoming second class citizens, or worse, becoming victims of real persecution.

Two million lost their lives in the long Sudanese civil war (1983-2005) between the largely Muslim north and the largely animist and Christian south. The civil war ended when President Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir-- who came to power in a 1989 military coup and was later indicted by the International Criminal Court-- granted the south limited autonomy and promised a January 2011 referendum.

Since 2005, the nation’s 5.8 million Catholics have fallen under two sets of religion laws. Currently in the north, all schools-- even Christian schools-- must offer instruction in Islam, and converts from Islam to Christianity face not only criminal charges but also death at the hands of their families. In the south, Christians enjoy religious freedom.

15% of the nation’s 38.2 million people are Catholic, according to Vatican statistics; 70% are Sunni Muslim.

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