After decades of racial oppression and religious persecution at the hands of an Arab-Muslim regime based in Northern Sudan, the predominantly Christian-African population of Southern Sudan has voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence in a historic referendum.
The week-long referendum on national self-determination for the south, conducted from January 9 to January 15, was mandated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, which ended 22 years of civil war.
That bloody conflict, which killed an estimated two million people and displaced more than four million, erupted when the Islamist regime in Khartoum attempted to impose Sharia or Islamic law, on the mostly black Christian population of Southern Sudan.
The southern-based Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) conducted a war of national liberation against the brutal Arab regime and later formed the de facto government of Southern Sudan.
Aiah Foday-Khabenji, general secretary of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa (AEA,) told ChristianWeek that religious oppression was an important factor in Africa's longest-running civil war.
However, the split between north and south “stretched beyond religion," Aiah says. “It was racial as well.
“The referendum was a fight for human dignity," explains Aiah.
Along with its umbrella organization, the World Evangelical Alliance, the AEA joined numerous other international organizations in monitoring the referendum to ensure that the vote was free, fair and credible.
“But even more importantly," says Aiah, “we were there in response to the churches, our national counterpart, the Sudan Evangelical Alliance, to stand with them and bring our experience to bear on their fledgling organization."
Similarly, Geoff Tunnicliffe, head of the World Evangelical Alliance, led a mission to Southern Sudan in October of last year, meeting with church leaders as well as Southern Sudanese president Salva Kiir and his cabinet.
“We were there to determine the most effective ways the global evangelical community could respond to the referendum and post-referendum situation," Tunnicliffe told ChristianWeek.
He says he found the people of Southern Sudan to be “optimistic on the one hand and deeply concerned for the future on the other."
In the weeks and months leading up to the referendum, many Southern Sudanese were understandably concerned that the process would spark widespread violence.
“Many calls were made for prayer for Southern Sudan," Aiah says of the Christian response to the threat of violence.
With the exception of an outbreak of deadly fighting between Arabs and Africans in the disputed oil-rich Abyei border region, which was not included in the process, the referendum was largely peaceful.
“When the referendum was a reality and very credible and peaceful, except for the Abyei factor, many confessed this is nothing short of a miracle, [an] answer to prayer, and God at work," Aiah says.
According to preliminary results released by the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, 98.6 per cent of the votes tallied so far endorse the independence option.
“Independence will present the Church "both in the Sudan and around the world "with a tremendous opportunity to be an agent of peacemaking, reconciliation, development and assistance," says Anita Levesque of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
John Lewis, a human rights expert with Christian non-governmental organization KAIROS, told ChristianWeek that the Church will play a vital role in the soon-to-be independent Southern Sudan.
“My sense is that the churches in Southern Sudan will continue to be called upon to broker peace between communities," says Lewis, who was in Sudan during the referendum, serving as an accredited observer on behalf of Canadian churches.
“The churches have a crucial role to play in tempering some of the instincts of a government in Southern Sudan, which is run largely by former SPLM combatants," he says.
Aiah agrees that the Church will be “a significant non-state actor in nation-building" as well as a source of “social cohesion."
Under the terms of the CPA, the governments of Northern and Southern Sudan have six months to work out the details of separation before the south can legally declare independence.
Difficult negotiations lie ahead. Disputes over borders, citizenship issues and oil revenues could lead to renewed hostilities.
Levesque worries that “an independent south will be very, very poor" and will be in need of humanitarian and development assistance from the international community and the global Christian community.
Tunnicliffe also expresses “great concern for the Christians that will remain in the North, where there is an increase in Sharia law."
“While they will become two countries," he explains, “the Church of Southern and Northern Sudan see themselves as one Sudanese Church."
Geoffrey P. Johnston is a freelance journalist based in Southern Ontario.