Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
South Sudan, Africa’s youngest nation, has been struggling with civil strife, armed conflict and a deplorable state of human rights and the rule of law before and after its independence in 2011. South Sudan came to international attention in the early 2000s because of the constant strife between the people of Southern Sudan and the Khartoum-based government of Sudan. The key causes of the civil war in South Sudan revolve around the ethnic tension between the largest tribe, the Dinka, under president Salva Kiir, a Roman Catholic, against the second largest tribe in South Sudan, the Nuer, under First Vice President Riek Machar, a Presbyterian.
The civil war came to an end in 2006 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The CPA ended the conflict between the Khartoum-based National Congress Party (NCP) government, led by Omar al Bashir, and the SPLM/A, led by Dr. John Garang. It provided for a temporary Government of National Unity (GNU) for six years and a national referendum on January 9, 2011 to determine the future of both regions. Despite gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan has been plagued with civil strife between President Kiir and Vice President Machar. This civil strife has prompted the international community to aid in resolving it, and one such community is the religious community, primarily the Christian community.
Religion plays a major role in the daily lives of the South Sudanese. Christianity is the biggest religion in South Sudan as Christians, primarily Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Presbyterians, account for about three-fifths of South Sudan’s population. However, South Sudan also has a number of Muslims, especially in the Northern Region. The ongoing civil war in South Sudan that has threatened peace and human rights came to an end with the signing of the 2018 Peace agreement between Kiir and Machar. However, this has not brought an end to the armed conflict in South Sudan with more than 400,000 South Sudanese dead and nearly 4 million displaced.
Despite all this, religious groups have remained afloat as the only institutions that have not been adversely affected by the civil war. In a survey conducted by the United States Institute of Peace, 82 percent of the South Sudanese admitted that they resorted to religious leaders whenever they needed guidance. Religious actors use various methods of spreading and passing the message of peace through their followers including prayers and summons. Religious leaders also take part in peace conferences such as the 1998 Wunlit conference as well as the Jonglei Peace Initiative of 2012. They run schools and clinics; provide trauma counselling; feed the hungry; and pray and care for the sick, elderly and orphans. They also conduct efforts to mitigate violence and mediate disputes ranging from marriage quarrels to violent attacks. The South Sudan church council also launched the Action Plan for Peace in 2015 with the intention of advocating for peace and reconciliation in the country. It has a vision in 2023 to have “a peaceful and just South Sudan where citizens coexist, live in harmony and experience equitable development within a secure environment.” Religious leaders are also openly engaged in advocating for peace, justice and respect for the rule of law in South Sudan.
These efforts for peace have attracted support from senior church leaders such as Pope Francis, who earlier in 2019 in a shocking but humble gesture went down on his knees and kissed the feet of South Sudan’s warring leaders at the Vatican in April 2019. After, he called upon Kiir and Machar to implement the national peace agreement that they had earlier signed in 2018.
Four years later, the stage was set in South Sudan for a visit earlier this month by not only the Pope, but also the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which they termed an ecumenical pilgrimage. On their pilgrimage, the religious leaders urged officials in South Sudan to put an end to bloodshed in the country. The Pope emphasized that the South Sudanese people have craved for peace and that it is now time to respond. The moderator of the General Assembly of Scotland also emphasized the importance of lasting peace in the country.
The visit by the religious leaders highlights South Sudan’s commitment to improving its image in regard to international relations. It is intended to be a starter for more global involvement in South Sudan to bolster peace and provide assistance in combatting the appalling crisis of internally displaced persons in South Sudan, as well as refugees in the neighbouring countries, mainly Uganda.
The fundamental message that was delivered across all South Sudan by the religious leaders is to respect the right to life and other fundamental social, political and economic rights in South Sudan. The religious figures also urged South Sundanese leaders to recommit themselves to the 2018 peace agreement. Under the bill of rights of the 2011 South Sudan constitution, the rights to life, personal liberty, a fair trial, education and public health care are paramount, yet the picture on the ground is totally different with many deaths and an appalling refugee crisis involving many internally-displaced persons. According to the 2021 United Nations Development Programme Report, access to justice in South Sudan is still lacking. Many cases are going unresolved, and many victims are being denied the right to justice, especially children, women and former rebels in the country. There are also gross human rights violations against women and children in form of sexual violence, poor education and health care systems, and the unresolved refugee crisis that leaves many homeless. Inequality also affects South Sudan, with many opportunities, especially in the organs of government, still out of the reach of women owing to South Sudan’s traditionally conservative nature and deep-rooted cultural norms.
The refugee crisis in South Sudan that has spread to other East African nations highlights the human rights crisis in South Sudan. According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, South Sudan has 2.19 million refugees and asylum seekers along with 2.27 million internally displaced persons and 16,000 stateless persons. The conditions in refugee camps and IDP camps are dire with poor health care systems, food insecurity, lawlessness and a disregard for human rights, all of which have been exhibited by the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. While meeting refugees and internally displaced persons at Freedom Hall in South Sudan’s capital, the Pope encouraged them to be agents of peace so as to cultivate a better future for the country. The Pope also responded to a request by Nyakuor Rebecca, who asked the pope for a special blessing for the children of South Sudan to grow in peace and love.
With a global perspective, the three religious leaders sought to shed light on the plight of South Sudanese citizens and the urgent need for peace in the country as the first step in promoting the rule of law and respect for human rights in the country. The ecumenical visit was also crucial in opening up South Sudan to more international aid in the country’s struggle for the sustainable development of public institutions and the promotion of the rule of law and human rights, which had massively deteriorated. This is despite the fact that human rights and the rule of law are entrenched in South Sudan’s constitution and the international treaties and charters that South Sudan is a signatory to, such as the United Nations Charter and the African Union Constitutive Charter.
Among the key points of the Pope’s address to the South Sudanese was the need to respect women and girls and to protect them from any form of violence. The comments come against the backdrop of an appalling and deteriorating respect for women’s rights in South Sudan, especially with rising cases of gender-based and sexual violence in the country. The violence has escalated because of the ongoing armed conflict according to a report by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan. The Pope’s speech opened up space on the topic of human rights for girls and women in South Sudan. These considerations have been neglected over time, primarily because of oppressive cultural norms of the ethnic tribes in South Sudan, and worsened by the armed conflict in South Sudan coupled with systematic impunity of the armed forces.
President Salva Kiir’s statement “[y]our humility to us was not in vain” sums up some of the feelings of the South Sudanese people. Hopes are high that this ecumenical visit will contribute to the implementation of the revitalized peace agreement of 2018 and further the promotion of the rule of law as well as human rights.
Marvin Nuwe Ahereza is a law student at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.
Suggested citation: Marvin Nuwe Ahereza, Religious Peace: The Impact of Christian Leaders’ Ecumenical Visit on Peace Efforts and Human Rights in South Sudan, JURIST – Student Commentary, February 13, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/03/religious-peace-the-impact-of-christian-leaders-ecumenical-visit-on-peace-efforts-and-human-rights-in-south-sudan/.