A Fragile Freedom in Sudan

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“We, the People of South Sudan, Grateful to the Almighty God for giving the people of the South Sudan the wisdom and courage to determine their destiny and future through a free, transparent, and peaceful referendum in accordance with the provisions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, 2005…Recalling our long and heroic struggle for justice, freedom, equality and dignity…Remembering and inspired by the selfless sacrifices of our martyrs, heroes and heroines….” With these words, the newest nation in Africa announced its own birth and independence on July 9, after suffering through one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern history in which the Islamic government of Sudan waged a jihad against the predominately Christian south.

In a letter inviting me to attend the celebration of the Declaration of Independence of the Republic of South Sudan, my friend—and a friend to America—President Salva Kiir Mayard it wrote, “The 9th of July 2011 shall be a historic one for the people of Southern Sudan. It brings to an end the Interim Period and the Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement, ushering the Sudan into a new political dispensation. It is a day when the 54th member of the African Union shall be born and its flag raised high in triumph.”

I am attending the ceremony to show support for a new leader in a country where I’ve been working since 1993.

Sadly, what should be shaping up as a celebration of freedom for 8.2 million Southern Sudanese is being marred by renewed military brutality against innocent people at the hands of armed Islamic militia and Sudan’s army.  Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s regime stands out, not for military might, but for the seemingly unemotional atrocities carried out on Sudanese citizens, their hospitals and churches.

Our organization, Samaritan’s Purse, has worked in Sudan for nearly two decades—operating three hospitals, including the largest in the South where we treated hundreds of thousands of patients, and rebuilding 440 churches that were destroyed during the war. I have met with President Bashir on three occasions to discuss my organization’s work in his country. In 2003, I met with Bashir in his presidential palace and specifically asked if Christians would be able to build churches and worship freely. “We will take the responsibility to rebuild the churches,” the president told me. “It will be our duty, even if a blind man can’t reach a church, it will be our duty to help him reach it.” Another empty promise.

Just six months ago, the people of South Sudan participated in an internationally recognized referendum in which virtually everyone voted for independence from the North. Yet, if the National Congress Party and their forces have their way, this July Independence Day will be stained by further conflict and bloodshed. Recently, Northern forces invaded Abyei, driving more than 100,000 innocent people from their homes. Now Khartoum’s military is bombing the Nuba Mountains and has burned down churches that we had rebuilt in Kadugli. A Sudanese pastor just wrote to us with this plea: “With grief today, I want to inform you that the new church is burned down. We have lost everything. The house where my staff lives was looted, and the offices were burned. Many people fled from town, but some stayed. There is no food or water now for them. There are only soldiers all over the streets. We need prayer.”

If ever there were a people who needed the help of the global community, it is those living in South Sudan, and particularly the areas on or near the North-South border—Abyei, South Kordofan/Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile.  Since the coup that brought Bashir to power 22 years ago, his regime has presided over the deaths of an estimated 2.5 million Sudanese.

Many international observers now fear signs of a new genocide in these fragile North-South border areas. A U.N. report found that Khartoum’s recent behavior in Abyei was “tantamount to ethnic cleansing.” Having worked throughout Sudan for nearly 20 years, I have followed this crisis closely as Samaritan’s Purse has provided $100 million in relief to Sudan.

Today I call on President Bashir to prove to a watching world that he can be a man of peace and not a man of war. I am asking him to recognize and honor the borders established by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005; to provide equal treatment to the minorities, especially Christians, living in the North; and to ensure religious freedom to all within his borders. I urge the international community to demand the enforcement of the peace agreement, including the findings of the Abyei Boundary Commission that were upheld by the International Court of Arbitration, which all parties agreed to accept. Although Bashir has overseen the darkest chapters of Sudan’s history, he still has a small window of opportunity to lead Sudan to a new era of peace.

We must stand with South Sudan as this infant democratic nation struggles to secure its own. America may not be able to resolve the conflict raging in Sudan, but it is unlikely it can be resolved without her help.