Sean Callahan, CRS executive vice president for overseas operations, recently traveled to South Sudan to witness first-hand the state of the new nation and Catholic Relief Services’ work there. Here are some of his reflections on peace and the role of the Church:
When South Sudan gained independence from its northern neighbor last year, it was a moment of tremendous victory for the new nation. But nine months after secession, the country—counted among the most impoverished in the world—continues to face significant challenges.
Tensions and violence on the border with Sudan remain, especially in the areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and the border itself has not yet been demarcated. In recent weeks, there have been concerns over oil revenue, with the South accusing the North of stealing its oil—subsequently shutting down all production. Since this is the major source of income for the government of South Sudan, it has put into place austerity measures, which could hamper development efforts.
Aside from these problems, the internal security of South Sudan is at stake, especially in Jonglei and Unity state, where ongoing interethnic violence continues to hinder development. Basic services such as healthcare and education are lacking throughout the country, and violence like this will only add to the difficulties of getting programs started.
But despite these enormous challenges, I did witness progress when I visited the country again last month. I had been to Juba (Sudan’s capital city) before independence. This time, I noticed a lot of changes. More infrastructure is being built and there are more paved roads. This is the start of a new country and you could see that people realize the investment that is required to make that country a reality.
‘We won the war, let’s not lose the peace’
Still, it was so clear that for any real development to take place there needs to be peace. This is not a new story in South Sudan. Peace eluded the area for decades before independence when it was embroiled in civil war. One obvious consequence is that today South Sudan is one of the poorest nations in the world. The interethnic conflict that is simmering—and sometimes flaring up—does not help that situation.
Unfortunately, people are used to an environment where violence is the main means to protect your family or community. They have gone generations without a government providing security. That is changing, but work needs to be done to change attitudes.
Still, it was clear throughout the country that there is a common desire for peace. That was evident in the numerous conversations I had with government and church officials. There was a common refrain that we heard over and over: ‘We won the war, let’s not lose the peace.’
Vast network of Church partners
Catholic Relief Services has maintained a number of peacebuilding programs throughout South Sudan for years, working closely with a vast network of Church partners to reach and influence members of communities most susceptible to violence. That work goes on.
And I cannot overemphasize the importance of the Church in South Sudan, a role that grew even stronger throughout the 101 Days of Prayer campaign when Catholics worldwide prayed for peace in the run-up to the referendum. Throughout the path to independence, the Church emerged once again as a leading voice of civil society, standing side by side with its people.
After independence, with the emergence of a South Sudanese government, there was a feeling that the role of the Church would change. And it will. But the Church can still play a terrific role. We saw this from international organizations reassuring us that the Church needs to continue to be an advocate for people of South Sudan and for its own development.
While South Sudan is now independent, it is clear that it will need accompaniment for some time. The international community needs to understand that assistance will be necessary in the development process.
The Church will continue to play a key role in ensuring there’s a unified South Sudan, and CRS will continue to work alongside the Church to bring peace and development to its people.”
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