JUDGING by the media coverage of South Sudan, it is the country closest to hell on earth.
Riven by civil war, and affected by horrific killings, rape, and now famine, it is the most dangerous place in the world to be a humanitarian. More than 80 aid workers, mostly nationals, have been killed there since the latest bout of fighting broke out in late 2013 (News, 10 January 2014).
What is often forgotten, however, is that South Sudan is a country bursting with potential. It is rich in gold deposits and other precious minerals; and it is home to the world’s second-largest animal migration — a potential source of tourism if only the guns would be silenced; and, despite the famine, it is naturally fertile.
The irrigation provided by the Nile means that it has the potential to be the breadbasket of East Africa. The famine is caused by fighting, which is disrupting food supplies. This means that those who can afford it can order a steak and chips in the capital, Juba, while, in parts of Unity State, people are being kept alive by food drops from the air.
Peace is the solution to the country’s woes. It is a common diagnosis, but identifying a clear path to it has proved elusive. It is why great hope is being put in the expected joint visit of Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury later this year (News, 3 March).
South Sudan is a majority Christian country, and its political leaders publicly profess their Christian faith. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of South Sudan, the Most Revd Paulino Lukudu, said that the visit would bring much encouragement.
“South Sudan is a Christian nation, our churches are full. Being people of faith, I know that a visit from these two spiritual leaders will bring healing for them. It will be a source of great strength,” he said.
The last visit, in 2014, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, was something still very much in people’s minds (News, 7 February 2014). At a meeting with Episcopalian church leaders in Juba, the Revd Samuel Murial, said: “I will not forget the visit of Archbishop Welby when he came so soon after the violence; when the bodies were still fresh in the ground. The burial even took place in his presence. That solidarity is what it means to be Christian. That’s what Christianity is about.”
For decades, before the country’s independence in 2011 from the Muslim-majority Sudan to the north, the Church has been the arbiter of local disputes, and was known for peace-building. But the scale of the recent barbarity has shocked many. One local-government official said that it was hard to comprehend that rape, torture, and killing were being carried out by people who called themselves Christians. He said: “We claim to be a Christian country, but the Muslims we fought from the north didn’t do this kind of brutality.”
Once again, people are looking to the Church to help heal the tribal wounds that are at the heart of the current crisis. The Revd Peter Gai, a Presbyterian, said: “I’m of the Nuer tribe, and, in the church, there are people from the Dinka tribe. In the church, we’re are one. In the church, I’m not a Nuer: I’m a pastor.”
These were words echoed by the general Secretary of the South Sudan Council of Churches, Fr James Oyet Latansio. “The blood of ethnicity is very thick — thicker than the water of baptism. We need to change this narrative,” he said. “We are not only tribes: we are South Sudanese. We need to tell the priests that they hold this responsibility to pass on this message. As people of faith, our job is to keep the light of hope alive that there is something better for South Sudan.”
In addition to the messages of peace brought by the Pope and Archbishop Welby later in the year, Fr James also urged South Sudanese in Britain to use social media to promote peace. “There are lots of South Sudanese in the Midlands, in Stoke and Birmingham, as well as Manchester and Leeds. People here trust social media from the UK more than newspapers in Juba, which we think are full of lies,” he said.
“Please send us peaceful messages, so that we calm down. Online, often people just pour fire that sows division, and we need UK churches and the South Sudanese diaspora to rain down messages of peace.
“As we say in Africa, when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
Joe Ware is a writer and journalist at Christian Aid. Christian Aid Week begins on Sunday.