The Catholic bishops of Sudan and South Sudan have said South Sudan is at a turning point, urging repentance and reconciliation after an outbreak of violence killed hundreds of people.
“We are convinced that we stand at a decisive moment in the history of South Sudan. Fundamental choices must be made about how we deal with our past and present history, about how we govern ourselves as a nation, about how state institutions serve the poor,” the bishops said in a joint apostolic exhortation Jan. 30.
“We must seize from the present crisis an opportunity to re-found our nation on democratic principles of dialogue, inclusion, and respect for diversity, God's gift to humanity.”
The bishops proclaimed their “hope and expectation” that South Sudan will “rise above the crisis.”
“Let our nations be built not on foundations of sand but on strong foundations of truth, justice, reconciliation, diversity and peace, on the foundations of the Gospel values enshrined in Catholic Social Teaching.”
The exhortation, addressed to the people of both countries, was produced by the extraordinary plenary assembly of the Sudan Catholic Bishops' Conference which met Jan. 21-31 in South Sudan's capital of Juba. Signatories included Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako of the Sudanese capital Khartoum and Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro of Juba.
South Sudan won independence from its northern neighbor Sudan in 2011, years after the end of a bloody, decades-long civil war in 2005. In mid-December 2013, armed conflict broke out in South Sudan's capital of Juba following a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar.
The violence has killed over 1,000 people and displaced over 500,000 more, the International Business Times reports. Some killings have reportedly been targeted based on ethnicity.
The bishops said they were “shocked” by the violence and that the region is in “crisis” and faces perhaps one of its gravest situations ever.
“Our vision of a liberated nation in which all people will be equal and live in peace appears to be shattered,” they said, comparing the violence to the murder of Abel by Cain.
They said that God will judge “harshly” those who murder, rape and loot the innocent, and judge “even more harshly” those who incite violence or fail to prevent it. At the same time, they added, Jesus came “not to condemn but to redeem.”
“We invite the prodigal son to return to the family, the lost sheep to the fold, the sinner to right behavior,” the bishops said. “We call for repentance and conversion of heart. Let those who have committed atrocities admit it honestly. Admission of guilt is a virtue, not a weakness.”
Describing Sudanese history as “an open wound that desperately needs healing,” the bishops called for a rejection of “negative narratives” that “poison” social relations.
“Let us end these vicious cycles by creating space where we can speak and work towards peaceful coexistence and reconciliation,” they said.
The bishops criticized growing tensions in South Sudan’s governing party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, saying these tensions played a “significant role” in the violence.
“Internal party disputes should not be allowed to destabilize the nation,” they said.
They called for better governance and for a rejection of the tendency to “personalize” political power and act against the community’s best interests. They said institutions should be staffed by people chosen for their “competency and professionalism.”
The bishops said that corruption and nepotism have helped destabilize South Sudan by preventing basic services from reaching people. This breeds “resentment and disillusionment towards the institutions of our state.”
They urged transparency and accountability in government as well as the rejection of “all recourse to violence.” They encouraged responsible journalism and the rejection of all incitement to violence, propaganda, speculations and rumors.
Military issues were also a subject of their exhortation. They said that the military should be non-political All armed groups should respect and protect civilians and prisoners of war. Hospitals, churches and other places of shelter should be respected. All conscription and recruitment of children should be rejected.
The bishops stressed the need for education to help students understand the “structures and dynamics” of society and to form them in “moral and ethical values.”
“Many of our leaders are churchgoers, but their behavior does not indicate a good moral life,” they said. “We need to form consciences and professional ethics.”
They voiced particular concern for the humanitarian crisis in the Diocese of Malakal in northeastern South Sudan. They appealed to all aid agencies to support vulnerable communities there and elsewhere in the two countries.
The bishops objected that churches had been excluded from the South Sudan peace talks held in Ethiopia. They also stressed the importance of prayer in this process.
“We call on the nation and all people of good will to continue to accompany the peace and reconciliation process with prayer and fasting,” the bishops said.
Attendees at the bishops’ plenary assembly included bishops of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences of Eastern Africa. The assembly also welcomed Archbishop Charles Daniel Balvo, the new papal nuncio to South Sudan.