New African Nation Is Mostly Christian

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) – The flag of South Sudan was raised as the Sudanese flag was lowered at the July 9 ceremony in Juba to mark the new predominantly Christian Republic of South Sudan’s independence.
“It was a graceful assertion of independence, without demeaning Sudan and its president,” said Dan Griffin, adviser on Sudan to the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services. He spoke with Catholic News Service by telephone on July 10 from Juba, South Sudan’s capital.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was guest of honor at the ceremony that marked the culmination of a January independence vote in which nearly 99% of the residents voted to secede.
The nine-hour ceremony took place at the mausoleum of the late rebel leader John Garang, who died six months after signing the 2005 peace deal that ended Africa’s longest-running conflict.
“It was a very moving ceremony,” said Steve Hilbert, Africa policy adviser to the U.S. bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, noting that “people were crying – for joy and probably also in sorrow for those who didn’t live to see this day happen.”
At least two million people were killed in Sudan’s last civil war, fought from 1983 to 2005.
Soldiers and traditional dance troupes paraded, then the speaker of the southern parliament read the independence proclamation, and South Sudan President Salva Kiir took the oath of office.
World leaders at the ceremony included U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague. Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services, attended as part of the U.S. presidential delegation.
Bashir called for good neighborly relations and said gains could be secured by maintaining joint economic and trade interests, reported Reuters, the British news agency.
“A lot of people came a long way to be in Juba for this day of independence,” Griffin said, noting that many people walked for days from other parts of South Sudan to join in the capital’s celebrations.
In the town of Nzara, 20 miles from South Sudan’s border with Congo, people gathered in a “peaceful and happy atmosphere” at the new government offices to see the flag raised, said Comboni Sister Giovanna Calabria, an Italian working in the town.
Sister Giovanna, who worked for 13 years in northern Uganda before moving to Nzara nine years ago, joined in the town’s celebrations with three other Comboni sisters who run a school, hospital and AIDS community.  The fifth member of their community had to stay at the hospital “in case of emergencies,” she told Catholic News Service in a July 9 telephone interview from Nzara.
The town’s population of between 1,000 and 2,000 people, joined by “many others who came from faraway villages,” gathered into prayer groups the previous night, “asking the Lord for a peaceful new country,” Sister Giovanna said.
“Everyone brought food to share, and the sharing was a symbol of unity and cooperation,” she said, noting that the prayers continued throughout the night.
Bishop John H. Ricard, retired bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., concelebrated a July 10 Thanksgiving Mass in St. Teresa’s Cathedral, Juba.
“There was a magnificent display of unity” at the Mass, attended by more than 1,000 people, said Bishop Ricard, who traveled to Juba to represent the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace at the independence celebrations.
Vincent Bolt, Sudan country representative for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, the official aid agency of the English and Welsh bishops, said there was “a great feeling of church family solidarity” at the thanksgiving Mass.
The worldwide Catholic community’s prayers for peace in the region “are very much appreciated by the church here,” Bolt said in a July 10 telephone interview from Juba.
Hilbert said there were about 30 people of Sudanese descent on his flight from the United States.
“There were children with U.S. accents coming for the first time” to South Sudan “to be there when the dream of generations was realized,” he said.
Sudan and South Sudan need to finalize their borders so that people in the world’s newest country can get to work growing crops in the lush fertile region, said Father Peter Othow, coordinator of development and aid for South Sudan’s Malakal Diocese.
“People who live in the border area are tense,” Father Othow said from Malakal, which is seen as one of the potential flashpoints along the 1,300 mile-border with Sudan.
“They can’t settle, because they feel that anything could happen,” he said, noting that during a surge of violence in May people fled from surrounding rural areas to Malakal and are afraid to go back.
Some have moved a mile south of “where they think the border will be, so that they are free to cultivate” the land, he said.
With “good security, everything can be achieved,” said Father Othow, who was born and raised in South Sudan.
He said church programs aim to help communities to be “food secure without depending on the North or neighboring countries.”
For instance, a diocesan program, largely funded by the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, will provide seeds and tools to people along with lessons on how to plant crops and vegetables effectively, he said.
Soldiers from both countries patrol the contentious border outside Malakal “on opposite sides of a canal, which really is a big ditch,” he said.
Sudan lost almost a third of its territory and about three-quarters of its oil reserves with the split that followed a January referendum in which almost all of the residents of the South voted to secede.
There are political differences among the people of Malakal and “a struggle for power which, if not carefully handled, could lead to more conflict,” Father Othow said.
“People need to learn to negotiate for power-sharing in government,” he said, noting that a “culture of negotiating” has yet to be developed in South Sudan, where “people often think that violence and threats of renewed tribal conflict speak louder” than debates with political opponents.
There are “high hopes that, with independence, there will be a much-needed focus on education,” Father Othow said, noting that teachers who are able to teach in English, South Sudan’s official language, are “desperately needed.”
South Sudan is one of the least-developed regions in the world. An estimated 85% of its population of around eight million are illiterate.
Until 2005, all subjects at schools in the non-Muslim South were taught in Arabic, said Father Othow. Now, “subjects are taught in English and Arabic is taught as a language,” he said.
Health services are another “urgent priority” in the newly independent state, Father Othow said, noting that while there is one government hospital in Malakal, a Comboni sister runs a clinic outside the town, “serving people who otherwise would have no access to health services.”