Churches push for peace in war-torn South Sudan

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Bishop Arkangelo from the Africa Inland Church speaks on the role of the church in peace building in South Sudan

 

This week the warring parties in South Sudan, together with international community and civil society organisations, will gather at the High Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF) in Addis Ababa to find ways to bring peace and cease hostilities in South Sudan. Ahead of this gathering, Tearfund East Africa Humanitarian Policy Officer, Sini Maria Heikkila, discusses the role of the church in bringing peace.

Conflict has devastated the lives of millions in the world’s newest state since December 2013. More than four million people have been forced to flee their homes. The brunt of the conflict is born by women and children and UNICEF has estimated that 86% of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda are women and children. 

The third meeting of the HLRF in May – the regional peace process led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development – provides a unique opportunity to achieve an inclusive and lasting peace agreement. In the middle of the conflict, the churches have a key role to play in waging peace and bringing communities together. For instance, Tearfund’s experience shows that generally all churches come together in an ecumenical spirit to promote peace and to work both for development of livelihoods and for spiritual growth. Thus, ensuring that the voice of church is heard in any peace negotiations, including HLRF, remains of utmost importance.

Peacebuilding through formal peace processes and community level work

The church has access to decision-makers at the highest levels and is heard by different warring parties. Much of the church-led peacebuilding work is undertaken by the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC), an ecumenical alliance of seven member churches and a number of associate churches established in the aftermath of independence in 2011. It has been actively involved in the HLRF since the beginning. In the latest meeting of this high-level forum in February 2018, the SSCC published “a divine warning and message to the parties to the conflict to stop the war.” It states:

“We have consistently stated that this is a senseless war which should and must immediately stop. There is no moral justification to continue war and killings, regardless of any legitimate political issues with government or opposition feel they may have.”

The church has had a long-term role in mediating local conflicts at community level for decades. Community-level peace work in South Sudan is also often led by the church. For example, SSCC has established long-term platforms for dialogue, trauma awareness and healing, so called “Neutral Forums”; these are safe spaces for people to discuss the root causes of conflict, contribute to trauma healing and new motivation of many affected communities.

“No time for church to be quiet”

In my visit to Juba in February, I spoke to Bishop Arkangelo from the Africa Inland Church, a member of SSCC. He shed more light on the role of church in peace building in South Sudan:

“This is not the time for church to be quiet. We need to have a prophetic voice that speaks peace to the darkness. Regional advocacy is also important and we want to ask partner churches in the region to speak out to their governments to promote peace in South Sudan“.

He highlighted the important role the South Sudanese diaspora can play in peace processes. More than half of the South Sudanese refugees live in neighbouring countries; Uganda alone has welcomed more than one million South Sudanese refugees during the last four years.

“More peacebuilding and reconciliation work needs to be done with South Sudanese refugees and internally displaced people. They also have to be included firmly in any formal peace process”, says Bishop Arkangelo.

“It is our responsibility as church leaders to find our place to promote peace in the middle of conflict. We are leaders but it is important to remember that we are also hurt and many go through severe trauma. Whether you have a collar or not, if you have marks on your face, you can be killed.* We travel to dangerous places and we use the biblical wisdom to urge people of South Sudan to live in diversity and coexist”.  

Peace messages from church reach millions of South Sudanese

“Peace is a journey, not an outcome. Together we are already on it.” These words from a church leader in South Sudan capture the hope that the church is bringing into a war-torn country. The church in South Sudan has unique access to and influence within communities reaching millions of South Sudanese. According to Bishop Arkangelo, church leaders feel safe on all sides of the conflict.It remains important that the church has a vocal and established role within peace negotiations and platforms at all levels – including community, national, regional and international level processes.

While in Juba, I attended a recent SSCC meeting, where we were joined by a large number of foreign ambassadors based in Juba. In March 2018, the members of SSCC met with Pope Francis in the Vatican; he highlighted his desire to visit South Sudan and the need for ecumenical action for peace. These meetings sent a strong, positive acknowledgement of the important peace advocacy undertaken by the church.

As the conflict in South Sudan continues its 5th year, it is important for all stakeholders and parties to recognise the potential of church in strengthening local level peace processes and strengthening political will and reconciliation. In any future peace initiatives, programmes and processes, it remains crucial to maintain an open space for church and other faith-based organisations to engage fully at all levels and continue to seek their contributions, equal participation- and prophetic voice.

 

*This refers to facial scarification which helps to identify the tribe of the person.

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