Khartoum Threatens Southern
Juba's Christian Leaders Refuse to Endorse Government's Peace Stance
by Barbara G. Baker ISTANBUL, September 4 (Compass) -- Sudan's Khartoum regime presented a threatening memorandum in early August to Christian leaders in Juba after the southern Sudanese church leaders refused to back the government's position on peace negotiations now underway in Kenya. The standoff began when Dr. Mahjub El Khalifa, the minister of agriculture and forestry, arrived in the southern city of Juba at the head of a Sudanese government delegation for "peace enlightenment." When the delegation met with local church leaders at the Catholic Archdiocese premises on August 5, they were presented with a three-page letter from the Catholic vicar general of Juba, listing his church's "points of concern" regarding the Christian view on the "true culture of peace." In a copy of the letter obtained by Compass, the Catholic leader noted the "planned program of brutal Arabization, Islamization, oppression and persecution to the point of extermination" carried out since 1990 which had "left unforgettable scars on the life of Southerners by Northerners." Stating that it was difficult to address the issue of peace without reconciliation, the letter concluded, "Unless our brothers in the North recognize their sins against the South and its people, repent, confess and repair them, no Southerner will be fully convinced and therefore be ready for peace." Two days later, the Bahr el Jebel state's Council of Ministers held an emergency meeting with church leadership, issuing a memo the same day criticizing the "negative attitude expressed by church members" who met with their delegation. The memo was signed the following week by Governor Lt. Gen. James Loro Oirisio. In terse demands, the Council of Ministers ordered Juba's church leaders to tackle religious issues without involving themselves in "political or security issues," embrace "tolerance towards all religions," and abstain from inciting public opinion against the government and its officials. In a written response dated August 28, Juba's church leaders labeled the resolution "an official threat and intimidation to our mission." "It is rather very sad and incredible that the state government issues such a threat against the lives of the church leaders just at the time when peace talks between the Sudan government and the (rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement) SPLA/M are taking place in Namyuki, Kenya," the document read. "Why be threatened at a time when all of us are longing and praying for peace?" The seven-page response was signed by a Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) administrator and local representatives of the Catholic, Episcopal, Pentecostal, Africa Inland and Presbyterian churches. Boldly matching the government ultimatum, the churches listed seven "resolutions" upon which they had agreed. Included was the decision to refuse permission for any political or government official to address their congregations or to meet with church leaders except through the auspices of the SCC. In a final point, the churches warned against attempts to take any of their clergy, religious workers or church members off church premises for interrogation without a written warrant. "If this happens, we shall term it intimidation and aggression, and we shall be forced by such situations to ring church bells all over the state to alert the whole population about the incident," the leaders said. From its side, the SCC demanded that the government delegation apologize in writing for its "misconduct" during the meeting on August 5, and also make an official correction of a report aired on Radio Juba August 8 claiming that the Catholic Church had apologized for the vicar general's letter. "There is not yet a reaction from the government," a church source in Khartoum told Compass today, "so we don't know how they are going to respond to the church's reply." "The situation between the politicians and the church leaders here is not all that good," one church spokesman in Juba noted. "So this really needs a lot of prayer." Nevertheless, the stance of the SCC leaders in Juba is reportedly "very strong," the Khartoum source said. "They are not worried, they are doing their work, and they feel that whatever the consequences are, they are ready." The Khartoum government and the SPLA/M have been involved in peace negotiations for the past two years. Although their historic Machakos Protocol was signed in July 2002, the two sides have failed during seven subsequent rounds of talks to agree on the thorny details, despite stepped-up involvement by the United States and other international backers. During a July 1 rally in Juba, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had declared that the conflict between the Muslim North and predominantly Christian South was nearing an end, stating his support for the "final touches" on an agreement to be reached in talks beginning July 6. The final peace pact was to have been ready for signing by mid August. But three weeks later, the Sudanese delegation rejected the mediators' latest document, declaring it "threatened the unity" of Sudan. The Machakos agreement had specified a six-year period of autonomy for the South, followed by a referendum on the region's political future. Now adjourned until September 10, the peace talks hosted in Kenya are being sponsored by the East African Intergovernmental Authority of Development (IGAD). Sudan's bitter civil war has killed about two million and displaced another four million citizens over the past 20 years. The conflict centers around issues of religious freedom, oil, ideology and the right of southerners to attain self-rule.
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