Catholic church prays for peace in Sudan as vote on independence, potential conflict looms

JUBA, Sudan (AP) — The Catholic Church on Tuesday launched a countrywide campaign in Sudan to pray for peace ahead of a scheduled referendum on southern independence that some fear may lead to violence.

Southern Sudan, which is predominantly animist and Christian, is scheduled to vote on independence Jan. 9, but preparations for the vote are badly behind schedule. The body charged with organizing the vote has not yet set a date for voter registration, a process likely to be contentious as officials decide who is eligible to vote.

The Obama administration has said it is "inevitable" the south will declare independence. But given the south's substantial known oil resources, many here worry that the predominantly Muslim north will find it difficult to accept an independent south.

President Obama is scheduled to attend a high-level U.N. meeting on Sudan on Friday.

"There are a lot of forecasts of war and all these indications that tells us the situation between north and south is as tense as ever," said Sister Cecilia Sierra Salcido, a Mexican nun.

Salcido and other members of the Catholic Archdiocese of Juba have organized "101 Days of Prayer for Peace." The effort began Tuesday to coincide with the International Day of Peace. It ends Jan. 1, eight days before the referendum.

"The least we can do is pray," said Salcido.

Hundreds gathered on a rainy morning in the southern capital of Juba to mark the launch of the prayer campaign.

Interfaith Christian work has long been a feature of efforts toward peace in Sudan during the country's long civil war and since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 that ended more than two decades of fighting.

"The church was able to present the authentic voice of the ordinary people of Southern Sudan and the transitional areas to the parties and the world," said John Ashworth, an advocate and leader of ecumenical peace efforts in the country. "The church played a major role in putting the right of self-determination at the center of the peace agreement."

Senior southern government officials have said that religious freedoms will be respected in an independent Southern Sudan, but some in the religious minority in the south are not so sure.

One Muslim living in Southern Sudan told The Associated Press that locals harass him and call him derogatory names. The man said southern soldiers occupy a mosque in Juba, saying it was a sign of disrespect. The man asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal attacks.