On July 9, as Father Callistus Joseph watched the flag of independent South Sudan rise for first time over the dusty capital city of Juba, he felt privileged to be present at the birth of the world's newest nation.
"The exuberant joy of the people was expressed in the tears rolling down their faces when the flag was hoisted," says Joseph, a Claretian priest from Sri Lanka who coordinates the Juba office of Solidarity with South Sudan, an international network of more than 170 religious congregations that provides training in education, health, and pastoral ministry.
"All I could do was bow in respect to a people that has endured long years of war, paying with 2 million lives to receive this great gift of freedom, he says.
The independence celebration came after citizens had voted in January to secede from the north, a move backed by Sudan's Catholic leaders.
"We southerners have lived for too many years without independence and freedom," Father Thomas Bagbiowia, a parish priest in the new country's Western Equatoria State, said last November in the run-up to the independence vote. "It's time we decide our own destiny. We've lived under fear of a centralized government that did nothing for the economic development of our region. Khartoum [the capital of northern Sudan] today is a modern city, but here in the south we don't even have roads."
Yet while July's independence celebration promised southerners freedom from oppressive rule by Khartoum, it has also set off a chain of political and military developments that have again placed the region on the brink of outright civil war.
The post-independence violence has come as no surprise to Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of the Tombura-Yambio diocese. "For our neighbors in northern Sudan, separation is not going to be a cup of tea," he predicted last December. "They are not happy about it. They say, 'OK, you are breaking away, so we're going to make sure you don't have peace.' They will use different ethnic groups here, giving money to one in order to put it at war with another."
To assure that political independence will lead to real change, the bishop said the church would need to redouble its efforts to build peace at the grassroots.
"My mother was killed by northern government soldiers when I was just two months old," Hiiboro said. "I don't want to see another baby losing its mother in the same way. If I have any power to promote a cukure of harmony and peace, I will do it."
Many tribes, one nation
The Sudan Catholic Bishops' Conference issued a statement in September supporting this call for unity and peaceful coexistence. "As we said in our season of prayer for independence, South Sudan must be 'one nation from every tribe, tongue, and people.' This is a shared responsibility, not just for the government," the bishops wrote.
Father Joseph of Solidarity with South Sudan says his group is committed to helping the church assume that responsibility. "As we contribute to nation-building with our training programs, the people of South Sudan show us how to know and love God," he says. "Their communal spirit, sharing the bare minimum they have, their simplicity and endurance in times of trouble, and their willingness to start anew have touched the core of who we are."
In 2005, with decades of civil war about to end, Sudan's bishops' conference invited religious congregations to help rebuild the church and reweave the social fabric of a terrorized land. The congregations that responded formed Solidarity with South Sudan and decided to focus on building capacity. Today Solidarity volunteers from around the world are training teachers, nurses, and pastoral agents in five communities across the country.
Part of Solidarity's success, according to Joseph, is that it leverages the contributions of many different congregations into one united effort. …