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Christians in the Muslim World

Emergencies Pending on the New Sudans

The conclusion of the long-expected referendum means that the Southerners’ most important goal has been reached. When the Khartoum government signed peace with the SPLM in January 2005 they probably thought that would be the end of the story: they had signed so many other peace agreements with a number of rebel factions and had always managed to neutralize them along the way. In the last six years, from that subscription until today the SPLM has had to swallow several bitter pills in order to save the referendum: first the census and then the general elections – two important steps before the referendum – no doubt fraught with illegality; then the exasperating slowness in implementing the terms of the agreement.

 

 

But patience has been rewarded: this was an exemplary referendum from all viewpoints, as both internal and international observed have remarked. Over 95% of those who had registered voted with discipline and dignity. As expected, the secession won. I have followed, in particular, voting in Raga, a locality in Western Bahr el Ghazal, bordering with Central Africa to the West and with Darfur to the North. Part of the border between Darfur and Bahr el Ghazal still has to be defined. The eve of the referendum was tense with fear that something might happen: UN forces (UNMIS) present in the territory were in a state of alert, just as the World Food Program and Médecins Sans Frontières. Instead, everything took place peacefully and the result was clear: the vast majority of the electors had chosen independence.

 

 

The referendum, however, was one step in the process; now the actual work begins, as it is the question of setting up a nation and resolve the open issues of Abyei, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile -- that is, the question of defining the borders.

 

 

Abyei is certainly top of the list. In order to save the referendum in the South, the SPLM accepted in extremis to exclude the Abyei zone, though the problem remains: Khartoum does not want to yield and continues to ignore the decision already taken by the Hague Court, which the two parties had initially accepted. During the referendum, a group of people travelling back southwards was attacked near Abyei: 46 were killed, but fortunately no more violence ensued.

 

As to the border definition, it is important to note that many areas within the North-South border still need to be defined. The Khartoum government has always been playing for time over this issue, hoping to find an alibi to postpone the referendum. But now time is running out.

 

 

The situation in the Nuba Mountains (South Kordofan) and the Blue Nile is a further reason for contention: these two areas have had an important part in the struggle conducted by the SPLA. The opportunity had been granted them for a popular consultation, allowing them to demonstrate their meaningful role within the Country – but this opportunity had slipped past, thus increasing the general sense of frustration. On the day the ballot boxes were closed, the Nuba people gathered in a huge demonstration in Kauda to express their disappointment for the way the situation had been handled, and reiterated the request for greater participation in the definition of Sudan’s new order.

 

Besides, now the practical problems of a new State born of a separation have all from come to the fore: sharing the income from oil, a large part of which is produced in the South but sold in Port Sudan; participating in the Nation’s goods and debts; mobility opportunities; the acknowledgement of acquired rights; nationality; revenues from imported goods and the consequent rise in prices; currency, etc.

 

 

Finally, there is another important aspect. The approaching referendum has coincided with a great exodus: Southerners resident in the North have returned to the South by the thousands. This has effectively involved the disappearance from the North of entire Christian communities within just few weeks. This process leaves the question open of what will happen to the Church that had flourished in the North thanks to the presence of Southern Christians. Among the Christians there is a certain concern: on one side, the fear that the Christian community may be reduced to irrelevancy; on the other, the risk of an increased presence of Islamic extremist forces. This fear is actually fuelled by the President’s declarations stating that in the event of secession a wholesale Islamic system would be imposed on the North: a scarcely concealed threat against the Southern Christians resident there.

 

 

Fortunately, as soon as secession became imminent, the Northern politicians themselves tried to moderate their tones, demonstrating a greater openness towards a peaceful and collaborative relationship. The Northern Church now needs to rethink her pastoral work, to educate towards a mature cohabitation with the Muslim brothers and to combine faith with life more passionately, at all levels, including those of society and politics. This is a great challenge requiring discernment and the courage for making brave decisions. But this does not scare a Church that has already given proof of being able to make it.

 

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