Since the beginning of South Sudan's civil war in 2013, the country's religious actors have sought to play an active role in turning the tide from war and violence to peace and reconciliation. Drawing on interviews, focus groups, and consultations, this report maps the religious landscape of South Sudan and showcases the legitimate and influential religious actors and institutions, highlights challenges impeding their peace work, and provides recommendations for policymakers and practitioners to better engage with religious actors for peace.

Members of the Catholic community in Yei, in southern South Sudan, celebrate the Feast of Saint Joseph. (Photo by Sean Sprague/Alamy Stock)
Members of the Catholic community in Yei, in southern South Sudan, celebrate the Feast of Saint Joseph. (Sean Sprague/Alamy Stock)

Summary

This study, conducted in South Sudan in 2017 and 2018, draws on informant interviews, focus groups, and consultations to better understand and map the religious sector in South Sudan. Its primary finding is that religious actors and institutions are the most important peace actors in the country. However, due in part to efforts by the government to constrain their influence, religious actors are not using their legitimacy effectively to turn the tide from war and violence to peace and reconciliation.

Religious actors, unlike in previous negotiations, were asked to moderate discussions at the May 2018 peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Even though the most challenging issues were not resolved, the shift in status raises the possibility of new roles for religious actors in future peace processes.

Sources of legitimacy for religious actors include their willingness to conduct risky mediation efforts, travel to areas experiencing violence, and speak truth to power. Their acts or statements, though, risk being labeled political. Comments about atrocities by soldiers or visits to marginalized communities, sometimes in rebel-held territory, further close the space for religious peace work when deemed to be political acts. Meanwhile, threats facing religious actors in South Sudan have worsened since 2013, and range from restricted movement and resource shortages to detentions, torture, and killings.

Opportunities exist to improve engagement between international peace actors and religious actors, to expand peace roles for religious women, youth, and prophets, and to increase the impact of religious peace efforts. Religious actors have also indicated interest in learning about nonviolent action and other such opportunities, but do not well understand concepts of strategic nonviolent action.

About the Report

This report showcases religious actors and institutions in South Sudan, highlights challenges impeding their peace work, and provides recommendations for policymakers and practitioners to better engage with religious actors for peace in South Sudan. The report was sponsored by the Religion and Inclusive Societies program at USIP.

About the Author

Jacqueline Wilson has worked on Sudan and South Sudan since 2002, as a military reservist supporting the Comprehensive Peace Agreement process, as a peacebuilding trainer and practitioner for the US Institute of Peace from 2004 to 2015, and as a Georgetown University scholar. She thanks USIP’s Africa and Religion and Inclusive Societies teams, Matthew Pritchard, Palwasha Kakar, and Ann Wainscott for their support on this project.

Related Publications

In South Sudan, the Hope and Pain of Nonviolence

In South Sudan, the Hope and Pain of Nonviolence

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

By: Yeng Lambo

After 3 a.m., my cellphone rang with the voices of relatives shouting that South Sudan’s spasms of violence had struck our family. In the night, armed youths of a rival community had ambushed a cattle camp of my clan, killing my cousins and other young cowherds as they slept, and stealing more than 400 cattle. Men from of my clan were gathering guns to race into the darkness to counterattack. If my country is ever to have peace, we must break such cycles of vengeance. So, I pleaded with my elder aunts and uncles to prevent that battle. I still do not know if we have truly succeeded.

Type: Blog

Nonviolent Action

In South Sudan, Civic Activists Take On COVID

In South Sudan, Civic Activists Take On COVID

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

By: Nelson Kwaje; Nicholas Zaremba

For South Sudan, COVID-19 is simply the newest plague. The world’s youngest country already faces civil war, repression, displacement, economic collapse, climate change, hunger—even swarming locusts. South Sudan’s people enter the fight against COVID under nearly the worst conditions of human development, and with 39 percent of them displaced by warfare. With a government that has been unable to provide even basic services, South Sudanese must rely on their emerging civil society, and international partnerships, to organize much of their response to the pandemic. Yet COVID now threatens vital international help for such grassroots campaigns.

Type: Blog

Nonviolent Action; Global Health

An African Activist Builds Peace with Youth—and Refugees

An African Activist Builds Peace with Youth—and Refugees

Thursday, June 11, 2020

By: James Rupert

Gatwal Gatkuoth was about 11 years old when war in Sudan forced him to flee hundreds of miles, alone, to Uganda as a refugee. Now he works to end wars. When COVID struck Uganda, the nation’s sudden shutdown caught Gatkuoth touring remote refugee camps, seeking ways to help Africa’s largest refugee population survive the pandemic. So when the U.N. Security Council called him weeks ago to ask his advice on improving efforts to build peace, Gatkuoth’s briefing over an unstable cellphone line came straight from a fragile front line of human need.

Type: Blog

Global Health; Youth

COVID-19 and Conflict: Horn of Africa

COVID-19 and Conflict: Horn of Africa

Thursday, April 30, 2020

By: Susan Stigant

USIP is closely following the effects of the novel coronavirus around the world and we’re particularly concerned about its effects in fragile states and conflict zones, which are especially vulnerable to the impacts of these kinds of outbreaks. This week, our Susan Stigant looks at what new challenges have emerged in the Horn of Africa since the outbreak began.

Type: Blog

Global Health

View All Publications