[ACNS by Adrian Butcher] Anglican leaders in Africa are sponsoring a church-led initiative to end the conflict in South Sudan. The Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa has invited South Sudanese church leaders to Zambia next month to press for the guns to be silenced.
The move comes after a group including leaders from CAPA and the ecumenical Council of Churches of South Sudan visited refugee camps in northern Uganda to hear first-hand the stories of those who have fled the fighting. They were joined by church leaders in Uganda which has taken in 1.25 million South Sudanese refugees.
One camp – Bidi Bidi – has more than 226,000 refugees. CAPA chair, Archbishop Albert Chama, said many of the delegation had been left in tears by what they encountered there.
“We heard from women, men, young girls, young boys, child soldiers who had been rescued – it really broke our hearts. We could not resist asking the question ‘what can the church do?’ The children are crying for school, they are crying for health.”
Archbishop Albert said the huge influx of refugees had put a big strain on the Ugandan authorities. Bidi Bidi camp has been forced to halve the daily rations given to refugees to ensure everyone is fed.
“This was really, really difficult for us to comprehend. You can imagine when you have got young people they need food to grow and maintain health,” he said. “But we sympathise with the authorities – when you plan for, say, 50,000 people and you get 100,000 what else can you do? You have to share. But seeing this was really something else for us – we could not hold back our tears.”
Archbishop Albert said the camp visits were an opportunity for church leaders to listen to the refugees and see the difficulties they are facing. And he said the message they heard was loud and clear.
“The people were saying ‘go back and speak to the people involved in the conflict...the government and the diaspora outside South Sudan. Tell them we are suffering and we don’t know why we are suffering. Tell them to stop the guns, tell them we need peace, we need peace, we need peace.”
The civil war in South Sudan erupted in December 2013 after the president, Silva Kiir, accused the vice president, Riek Marchar, of plotting against him. Attempts at mediation since have repeatedly broken down. But church leaders have been in dialogue with both men amid signs of hope.
Now CAPA is working with the Council of Churches of South Sudan to bring peace. CCSS leaders have been invited to the Zambian capital, Lusaka, next month to seek God, pray and discuss the situation and then formulate a united response. Archbishop Albert is optimistic.
“People (in the camps) were saying to us ‘you are the only hope we have’. If the church speaks, the people will listen,” he said. “So if the churches are united in one voice, they can stop the war. When they work with their denominations, their pastors, things will change on the ground. That is our hope.
“We hope the outcome of the retreat in Lusaka will be that church leaders go ‘full throttle’ telling the warring factions to silence the guns so that negotiations can begin.”
After visiting the camps, the delegation continued its discussions with other leaders at a summit meeting near Entebbe. In a communiqué issued afterwards, there was praise for Uganda for the way it was helping the refugees.
It said: “Despite the challenges being faced in the resettlement camps, the South Sudanese refugees expressed profound gratitude to the government and people of Uganda... for receiving and setting aside land for resettlement.”
The sentiments were echoed in a statement by the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who has been visiting northern Uganda this week.
“In a world where so many people are selfishly closing their doors, closing their borders, not allowing people to come, this example deserves praise (and) admiration from the whole international community,” he said.