A Bishop-Optimist in Sudan

Civil War Hero Says He’s Hopeful Peace Can Endure

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ROME, JUNE 14, 2010 (<a href=”http://www.zenit.org”>Zenit.org).- International opinion about the future of Sudan is less than optimistic. “Irregular” elections in April reinstated Omar al-Bashir as president of the country, ruling from the northern capital Khartoum.

But just seven months from now, discontents in the south of the country will theoretically get the chance to vote on seceding from the north and forming Africa’s newest country.

It’s not certain that Bashir will allow the referendum — part of the 2005 peace deal that ended the brutal two plus decades of civil war. Or recognize the results if it does. And if there is a vote for secession, an independent south will face plenty of its own problems. The tribes of south Sudan will have to get along and govern themselves — another reason Sudan observers are hesitant about optimism.

But there is an optimistic voice coming from the south of the country: retired Bishop Paride Taban of Tobit, who told the international agency Aid to the Church in Need that he, at least, is confident the country will not return to war.

Bishop Taban began his episcopal ministry in 1980 as the auxiliary of Juba, the city that would be the capital of an independent south.

Three years later he was named to Tobit, where he spent some 20 years — a tenure that coincided with the civil war and earned the prelate a hero’s reputation.

As Bishop Taban awaits the January referendum, he says he’s encouraged by comments from Salva Kiir, the leader of semi-autonomous south Sudan.

“It was strange hearing the president of south Sudan saying [we must] never go to war,” the bishop told Aid to the Church in Need. He added, “The people of south Sudan seem to be more mature than many people think.”

Bishop Taban also points to achievements since the ’05 peace agreement: “Even during this short period, [the people] have had a lot of challenges but widespread war has never taken place.”

Not so sure

Bishop Taban’s optimism is not exactly contagious, however. His brother prelate in the Diocese of Tombura-Yambio, on Sudan’s southern and western borders, fears an entirely different prospect.

Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala told Aid to the Church in Need that “the possibility of the entire nation descending into the abyss is a likely scenario.”

The 46-year-old bishop of two years pointed to violence after the April elections, and widespread concern in his diocese about vote-rigging.

Bishop Taban does acknowledge that President Bashir’s respect for the referendum, or lack thereof, will be key.

“If what President Bashir says about respecting the referendum result is true then that is good,” he said, “but we don’t know if what he says is true.”

Bashir’s reputation is not exactly hopeful: The International Criminal Court wants him for charges of war crimes in Darfur.

But 74-year-old Bishop Taban still looks at the positive: “It will not be easy but we have to learn to share the resources that we have — and that includes oil reserves.” As to the referendum, he urged: “Let the people choose. Let nobody push them one way or another. Let us help the people to be happy.”

The prelate does say international aid will be important for protecting peace in Sudan.

“People in south Sudan may be people of good will, but they need a lot of support from the international community,” Bishop Taban affirmed. “They need to be strengthened otherwise many will leave out of a fear of a return to war.”

About 5% of Sudan’s 42 million people are Christian, and most of them live in the south or in Khartoum. There are nine dioceses/archdioceses in the country.

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