Church sends memo to US President, Congress on South Sudan crisis

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Jan 13, 2014

[Episcopal News Service] A Jan. 10 memo to the Obama Administration and members of U.S. Congress sent by the Episcopal Church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations outlines the current crisis in South Sudan and makes recommendations urging the government and the international community to partner with South Sudanese civic and faith leaders to stem the tide of violence and build peace.

The six-page memo, based on the firsthand accounts of church leaders on the ground in South Sudan and Episcopal and Anglican partners worldwide, conveys the church’s understanding of the current crisis that has engulfed the world’s newest nation. The memo touches on four areas specifically: public representation of the conflict and accountability; foreign assistance; human rights protection and the prevention of mass atrocities; and building a future of peace.

“Episcopalians in the United States and around the world have maintained long and close relationships with Episcopalians in South Sudan,” said Alexander Baumgarten, director of government relations for the Episcopal Church.   “As a result, we have a responsibility to share the unique and compelling perspectives of partners in South Sudan who are playing a peacemaking role in the midst of extraordinary upheaval and violence.”

Among other things, the memo warns “While ethnic tensions are real and reflect the fruits of decades of upheaval and struggle, they are not the primary driving engine for the current violence,” and stresses that the media’s, and to an extent, the U.S. government’s portrayal of the violence as between ethnic and tribal groups is “misleading,” “simplistic,” and “could carry dire consequences.”

It also warns that the east African nation could be on the brink of civil war, and that the U.S. and others bear the responsibility of preventing mass atrocities and human rights violations.  Click here to read the full memo to the president and Congress.

The estimated death toll had reached 10,000 people by Jan. 9. Some 200,000 people have been internally displaced inside South Sudan and tens of thousands of refugees have crossed borders into neighboring countries.

Fighting erupted in Juba, the nation’s capital, on Dec. 15 following a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar. In the weeks since, the crisis has spread to seven states and has created a humanitarian crisis in the fledgling nation.

“Our most-current reports indicate that violence is still spreading and that the urgent needs for food, medicine, and shelter could continue for months to come.   The situation mirrors the dire time before Sudan’s 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, in which interminable civil war killed millions and uprooted millions more from their homes,” the memo’s introduction states.

Baumgarten noted that Episcopalians and Anglicans around the world with mission ties to Sudan and South Sudan have been hosting regular conference calls in the weeks since violence erupted in mid-December, and that his office’s staff have been sharing vital information as they learn it with U.S. government officials coordinating the humanitarian and peacemaking response.

“This is an example of an area in which the advocacy of Episcopalians can make a vital difference,” said Baumgarten.  “There is no civic institution in South Sudan with a larger footprint than the church, and our experience is that government officials in the United States and elsewhere are quite eager to hear perspectives from church partners on the ground.

The Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan, with 2 million members, has 31 dioceses — 26 of them in South Sudan where it is one of the nation’s largest non-government organizations and has played a role in reconciliation in the aftermath of a two-decades-long civil war fought largely between the Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the Christian-animist south, that left 2 million people dead and an estimated 7 million displaced. South Sudan gained its independence from the north on July 9, 2011.

Sudan’s warring parties signed the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, ending the civil war that killed more than 2 million people and displaced an estimated 7 million more. South Sudan officially gained its independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011.

The memo points out that, “The leaders of the new state did not vigorously undertake the task of addressing the challenges of developing a unified nation and healing past divisions.” And that unification and healing are central to peacemaking efforts.

(In May 2013, South Sudan’s president appointed Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul to chair the national reconciliation committee, which planned a four-to five-year national campaign aimed and fostering peace building and reconciliation.)

The memo praises the Obama administration for its Dec. 3 pledge of an additional $50 million in humanitarian aid, but urges an “examination” of its and Congress’s aid strategy. On Jan. 9, news reports suggested that South Sudan risks losing hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid if government and rebel forces do not end the violence.

Meanwhile, Episcopalians and Anglicans across the Anglican Communion, including Episcopal Relief & Development, and Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, working with local partners in South Sudan, have begun responding to the crisis.

“The Episcopal Church, along with Episcopal and Anglican partners around the world, has mounted its own response of financial support, material accompaniment, and prayer for the people of South Sudan. We believe strongly that the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan and other faith groups there are among the most fruitful potential actors in leading and facilitating peace, humanitarian assistance, and healing,” the memo states.

The Episcopal Church’s long-standing support for Sudan is manifested through its partnerships and companion diocese relationships, programs supported by Episcopal Relief & Development, and the advocacy work of the Office of Government Relations, which is rooted in General Convention resolutions.

Two Episcopal Church missionaries who were serving in South Sudan, Ed Eastman and Noah Hillerbrand, both engaged in food-security work, were evacuated from Renk to Nairobi, Kenya, on Dec. 20.

– Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service