JUBA — Apologising for delaying the liturgy, U.S. Senator John Kerry paid tribute to the people of southern Sudan while addressing a congregation at St.Teresa’s Cathedral in Juba, the region’s capital.
Sen. Kerry is Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and has visited Sudan three times times in recent years on behalf of the Obama Administration. He sat next to Salva Kiir, President of the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) – as the regional authorities here are known.
A U.S-backed 2005 peace deal, which ranked as President George W. Bush’s main foreign policy successes, gave the mainly Christian south a degree of self-Government after 22 years of war, causing 2 million deaths, with the Islamist-leaning Government in Khartoum.
Kiir attends Mass here any Sunday he is in town – so his presence is no big deal to locals. However Sunday January 9 saw the start of a decisive and historic week-long referendum, with southern Sudanese voting whether to remain part of Sudan, or secede and form their own country
But the region, which has a significant Catholic population, may have a difficult future as an independent country. Nine out of 10 people live on less than $1 a day. Most of the land is either scrub or swamp. Half the people receive some form of international humanitarian assistance, and most are illiterate.
Eager to establish historical, Christian credentials, names such as Azania and Cushitia have been suggested as possible names for the country. The latter refers to the Biblical land of Cush, which is thought to approximate to this region of Africa.
Southern Sudan’s vote has attracted a foreign press entourage to an area that does not ordinarily receive much media coverage – despite the history of war, famine, disease. South Sudan is also site of a low-key geopolitical contest being played between the United States and China, with the latter a key investor in and buyer of Sudanese oil.
Earlier Sunday, at the Mass conducted in Bari, one of many local languages, western journalists scurried in and out of the Church, to the consternation of the nuns working as ushers. “Please, this is the consecration,” implored one, to which the cameraman and reporter responded, as if not hearing her pleas, “Is the president here? When will be be here?”
An Arabic Mass came next, during which I caught up with Fr. Philip Petia, the Parish Priest at St Teresa’s. “What did you think of the journalists coming into the church during the Mass?’, I asked.
“You must be Irish,” he said, “Anyone with that accent should know that you cannot interrupt the consecration,” he laughed.
“I don’t mind people taking photos during Mass, but they can ask first and then can sit at the side near the altar, not walking up and down during the consecration.”
“There will be many reporters here for the English Mass,” I reminded him. “What will you do then?”
“Hopefully they will respect the Mass and listen to what the Archbishop and the president’s team ask them to do.”
Usually men sit on the left of the Church, women on the right. Earlier, the invading posse of reporters subverted this, but they soon left when they realised that neither President Kiir nor Sen. Kerry would be there until the English Mass later on. And when that time came around, the church was packed, with crowds spilling out onto the steps and dry-earth carpark outside, as camera crews jostled for position near the altar.
By the time I got my photos – before the Mass – the crowd was such that the male-female segregation was dispensed with, and then, having persuaded the GoSS President’s security that I was merely there to attend Mass and not stick a camera in Salva Kiir’s face, I took my place 2/3’s the way down from the altar and amid mixed group of men and women of all ages.
Tall and greying, he spoke with clarity and humour about what it means to be Catholic and Christian in a country dominated by a Islamist-leaning Government, a foe turned uneasy partner over the past 6 years.
Fr. Peter estimates that two-thirds of southern Sudan’s Christians are Catholic. However in an area bigger than France, with no paved roads outside Juba, it is difficult to get around and establish exactly how many people live there.
Southern Sudan, whatever it is ultimately called and whenever the new state comes into being, will face many challenges. The long years of war have taken their toll, and though cynically-made, Khartoum President Omar al-Bashir has a point when says that an independent southern Sudan will be a “failed state,” though in truth his own misrule and war-mongering in the south has caused much of the suffering and destruction there, and hence the southerners’ desire for independence.
“The northerners tried to impose Arabism and sharia across Sudan,” said Fr. Peter. “You cannot govern a country with so many ethnic groups and identities with such a system.”
“Imagine if we tried to impose canon law on others in Sudan.”
He said the Catholic Church was targeted by the Khartoum Government throughout the 1983-2005 war. “We were depicted as agents of the imperialists, or agents of Rome out to undermine Islam.”
However the Church and affiliated aid organisations and charities helped people suffering from war, disease and hunger, without fear or favour, he said. “Some people saw us for what we really are, we helped other Christians, Muslims, people from traditional beliefs, if they were hungry, thirsty, homeless, hurt. We did not ask for conversion or anything like that in return,” he said.
Now what does he hope for? “Firstly, as I asked during the Mass, we want people to vote peacefully, in an orderly manner, and not to cause trouble.”
“Do you want to see an independent southern Sudan?”
“This is an opportunity for us to express our will, in a way that we have never had before”, he concluded.”We have our own culture, and history, here in the south. It is better for us to be on our own”.
Back in 2007, when I knew more about Sudan than I do now, I contributed two chapters to a book called Beyond Settlement, which focuses on what happens as countries stop fighting. See – http://bit.ly/hdkmVvShow