By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (January 7, 2011) – Sunday’s referendum in South Sudan to determine whether the semi-autonomous region will separate from Sudan and become its own country could have profound impacts on members of the Evangelical Covenant Church of Sudan (ECCS). Evangelical Covenant Church leaders in North America are encouraging Covenanters to pray for their brothers and sisters in the African nation.
“The election is the hope of what the 2005 peace accord was about,” says Dave Husby, director of Covenant World Relief. Prior to the accords the government of Sudan had been engaged in a civil war with the Southern region for decades. The conflict claimed the lives of two million people and forced millions more to flee to refugee camps in Ethiopia and elsewhere.
The ECCS has roughly 20,000 members and was formed in Ethiopian refugee camps in 2000, says Husby.
The Covenant has a long relationship with the South Sudanese that predates the formation of the church. Refugees who made their way to the United States discovered the denomination and encouraged the formation of the church back in Ethiopia.
One of those refugees was James Tang, now an ordained Covenant minister and missionary to Sudan. He has referred to the North’s attacks on the South as “attempted genocide.”
Tang says separation could make life more peaceful for the South Sudanese and give them the opportunity to begin rebuilding their lives.
“Please pray fervently for the people of Sudan as they participate in this historic referendum vote,” says Curt Peterson, executive minister of the Department of World Mission. “Pray for God’s grace to surround those who have suffered greatly in the past two decades. We pray for peace, a fair and just voting process and freedom from violence and conflict over the results of this vote.”
Peterson adds, “Pray for the leaders of the Covenant Church in Sudan that they will have wisdom and courage in being a light of hope and a witness to the good news of Christ during this time of uncertainty.”
Covenant World Relief and World Mission have helped guide the development of the ECCS and continue to provide assistance. Some of the most recent aid has included funds for the ECCS to provide food to refugees returning from Ethiopia.
Other Sudanese who have returned to the South are “just camped in football stadiums and police training centers, and nobody seems to be taking care of them while they are suffering with shortage of foods, clean water, and shelters,” says Abraham Tuach Kier, president of the ECCS.
Husby says he is amazed at the generosity of the ECCS. In a nation where identifying who is the most impoverished is akin to determining who has the least of nothing, the South Sudanese church has distributed the assistance according to need regardless of whether people belong to the church.
“They have been a wonderful group to work with,” Husby says.
During a 2009 visit by Covenant leaders, ECCS members greeted them at each stop with celebrations that included foot-washing ceremonies.
The Covenant also has helped start businesses and built schools. Teenagers at CHIC 2006 raised more than $100,000 to construct Good Hope Basic School which educates more than 1,900 students in grades kindergarten through eight and is now considered the best in the region. Click here to see video of dedication ceremony.
Four million people are expected to vote in the election, which will run seven days and be held only in the South. Refugees have been returning for the opportunity to vote.
It is almost a foregone conclusion that voters will overwhelmingly cast their ballots for independence, but at least 60 percent of registered voters must take part for the referendum to be valid. Low literacy rates and relative inexperience with voting may make achieving that percentage difficult.
Sudanese President al-Bashir recently promised that the North will honor the election results, but concerns remain whether he will remain true to his pronouncement.
The South and North are dramatically different in culture, language, and religion. The North is predominantly Arabic and Islamic in its faith tradition, whereas the South includes Sudanese from a variety of backgrounds and is primarily Christian. The civil war started after al-Bashir and his predecessors sought to impose a strict form of Sharia law.
Economics also have played a significant role in fueling the conflict. Eighty-five percent of Sudan’s rich oil reserves are located in the South and serve as the primary source of income for the nation.
If the needed margin for secession is reached, South Sudan will become Africa’s newest country on July 9, 2011—exactly six years after the peace deal took effect. The vote will be only the first step of what most likely will be a long struggle for the nation, which will be as large in area as France and Germany combined, with a population of nearly eight million.
The nation has little infrastructure—there are almost no roads, for example—and little access to healthcare and schooling. Agreements with the north on oil production and delivery will need to be made.
A dispute will remain over control of the oil-rich Abyei region, which is located between the North and South. Abyei will hold a separate vote, possibly later this year, on which nation to join.