South Sudan is the youngest nation in the world – it got its independence six years ago. But after five decades of the constant war which brought it into being, independence has not brought about peace.
A power struggle a year after independence between president Silva Kirr and his deputy, Reik Machar, “easily broke into tribal conflict now, so you have different sections or different tribes fighting one another,” the Most Rev Moses Deng, Archbishop of Wau Province explained to Global Christian News.
The war has put the church in South Sudan in a very difficult position, Archbishop Deng said, as it works towards finding peace for generations of people who have never known peace.
“When you speak truth,” Deng said, “the government will easily accuse you of being a member of ‘In Opposition’ [the SPLM – Sudan People’s Liberation Movement]. People will always interpret what you are saying. They will think you are supporting either the government or the rebel leader. “All of us come from a tribe. Even Jesus Christ did have a tribe where He came from,” Deng noted.
The Churches in South Sudan are trying to find effective ways to help their communities and drive the country towards development, but the government has kept the church at an arm’s length, according to the Archbishop. “The government is very much looking at the military as the base of their power. So, they are not so much interested in church leaders.”
“After all they really don’t see church leaders as a threat because they don’t have a machine gun,” Deng
A church leader only talks, “and if he becomes too loud you can just eliminate that one and the others will be afraid.”
The protracted conflict in South Sudan has brought insecurity, hunger and trauma for its citizens. “Just to make it clear, in South Sudan, we have never been one nation, we have been a group of nations. The South Sudanese do not see themselves as members of the nation first but as members of their tribes or communities first, then South Sudanese as second. But we were united because we had a common enemy, that was the north.”
The main issues that united the tribes were, “The policies of the government in Khartoum, the policies of Islamisation and Arabisation.”
Deng said. “You have to believe that you are a Muslim and an Arab otherwise you cannot be considered as a Sudanese. So, because of the opposition to that, we were united.”
Now, however, the uniting force is gone. “We need to find another central thing that will unite us as South Sudanese. And this is what we think, at the moment, what brings South Sudanese together is actually Christianity. There is nothing else,” Archbishop Deng declares.
The church in South Sudan is currently the only uniting force in the country. “The churches, are the best placed institutions that are trusted by the warring parties,” according to Deng. “The Church now has an opportunity with the name and trust it has – to work to bring these different communities together.”
The Archbishop explained how the South Sudanese churches have risen to the challenges posed by the war. “We have been working hard to build peace among the communities at the local level and we are hoping we will continue doing that and we have been able to provide food, and relief to people who are displaced, and we have been able to provide spiritual guidance.”
When Moses Deng was appointed Bishop of Wau in 2009, there are only three primary school in the entire diocese. “There were no theological colleges to train the pastors, and in fact, most of those who were ordained, including myself, they never had, really, any educational background that will enable them to do a diploma or certificate course in theology.” Eight years later, they have 15 schools, four secondary schools and nine primary schools and a seminary, St John’s College for training pastors.
“I see hope in the faces of people especially when I am visiting parishes.” Deng said. “When I am visiting parishes, it takes me three years to go around the whole diocese… I find thousand s of people on the way waiting to welcome me. So, when I come, the hope I see in the faces of people is another thing that encourages me so much. That is much more than the money I can ever be paid,” said Deng.
Part of the encouragement the archbishop gets are the support from Christian organisations including the relief agency Hart, Humanitarian Relief Trust led by British peer, Baroness Caroline Cox which has been helping to build schools.
Barnabas Fund, the persecuted church agency, has had a pivotal influence. It has fed 1000 families in an IDP camp giving the Church of South Sudan greater influence and leverage.
“People didn’t believe that with all the divisions the church can be so impartial and fair to every tribe,” Deng
“The problem of South Sudan now is failure of leadership. These leaders will not be there for the next 20 years so when a new generation of leadership comes in, the next agenda I will love to see them come with, is to have a roadmap for nation building. Because at the moment, we have a country, we have a state, but we don’t have a nation.
“I will just do my part so that we build a nation that is united, that is strong, economically, that justice is being done, that is my hope. In the next ten to twenty years, South Sudan will come out of this mess that is being reported all the time, insecurity, economic collapse, hunger, and displacement of civilians.”
Hassan John is West Africa Editor, Global Christian News and priest, Anglican Diocese of Jos.