South Sudan’s Religious Unity Can Help Heal Wounds of Violence

Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Othow Okoti Abich Onger and Jacqueline H. Wilson

South Sudan is a country that originated from the throes of conflict with religious overtones. Yet the constructive role of religious leaders during the new fighting that began more than a month ago is a reminder that they can play a critical part in getting the country back on a path to peace. 

Residents in Yei in central Equatoria State, South Sudan, march for peace in front of a Catholic Church. Photo courtesy of Reconcile International

In mid-December, when it became clear that a meeting in Juba of one of the ruling party's decision-making bodies  was exposing tension and contained the risk of violence, national-level religious leaders of several denominations drew on the impending Christmas season to call for peace through the holiday. The hope was that the holy season in a now-predominantly Christian country could provide a pause to address the growing political rifts.    

Heated violence nevertheless followed within the military ranks in Juba and spread nationwide, including armed clashes and ethnic targeting. The main conflict has occurred between supporters of President Salva Kiir and his challenger, ousted Vice President Riek Machar, and between their ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, respectively. Observers estimate that the number killed will far exceed 10,000, and a half million people have been forced from their homes because of the fighting.

Yet in many cases, religious leaders and their congregations opened their churches and homes to those at risk, no matter their ethnic group. Clergy also helped bury bodies and shared food and basic necessities like water, regardless of the affiliation of those in need. The empathy of church leaders for the vulnerable has been consistent. Their unity in calls for peace and compassion instead of violence has been steady. 

Religious leaders traditionally have played a unifying role in southern Sudan since the 1965 formation of the Sudan Council of Churches, through the 1989 spin-off of the New Sudan Council of Churches to serve the southern areas specifically. In 1999, religious leaders helped shepherd the historic civilian peace and reconciliation conference in Wunlit, Bahr El Ghazal. That meeting brought together Dinka and Nuer groups who had been fighting each other on the West Bank of the Nile River in the face of a common enemy, the northern government in Sudan.  After the conference, clergy helped solidify the new unity with a grassroots dialogue in places like Jonglei state in the east.

Religious leaders in southern – and now South -- Sudan close a gap that no other actors can fill, binding South Sudanese across ethnic, religious, geographical and political boundaries. Far beyond ministering to those in need, churches are often important meeting points, particularly in towns that are ethnically and religiously diverse.  Churches can play a special convening role. And religious institutions can convey accurate and timely information to large crowds of listeners, their parishioners. 

In addition to their convening and information-sharing role for average citizens, religious leaders are trusted interlocutors and intermediaries and have access to the eyes, ears and minds of the elites, the spoilers, the politicians, and the armed factions.  Religious leaders effectively form a "tribe" of believers that reaches across political and ethnic boundaries. 

Beyond encouraging armed actors to put down their weapons, religious leaders can make critical contributions to monitoring any agreement that comes from political negotiations and in ensuring that its impact reaches to the grassroots.  Once security is established in the aftermath of a ceasefire, religious leaders can beat the drum for peace and conduct genuine dialogues convening government, traditional leaders, and broadly diverse civil society representatives so the nation can build up a common political will to deal with outstanding issues. Radio programs also could be enlisted to broadcast religious leaders conveying information and reassuring their followers about the complex and challenging process of building peace.

Religious leaders can help hold accountable the leaders who sign ceasefire pacts and other agreements, by quickly reporting indications of insincerity and signs of continuing violence. Although their calls for calm in mid-December were not heeded, the clergy have pursued their work behind the scenes and at the local level, not only in aiding victims of violence but also by mobilizing peace efforts.

Religious leaders witness on a daily basis the devastating effects of violence on lives and livelihoods, and can help leaders and citizens walk the path back to reconciliation and forgiveness. They are powerful forces for encouraging their flocks to stop the cycle of violence and retaliation, and instead focus on restoring relationships and rebuilding fragile trust. 

Othow Okoti Abich Onger is participating in USIP's Sudanese/South Sudanese Youth Leaders program in Washington. Jacqueline H. Wilson is a senior program officer in USIP's Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding.