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Choice of independence for Southern Sudan already made, observers say

By Dennis Sadowski Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The planned referendum on independence for Southern Sudan Jan. 9 is simply a “formality” and efforts must be undertaken to assure that the fragile peace that exists in Sudan continues after the vote, said members of a delegation who will present their concerns to the United Nations in mid-October.

Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Adwok Kur of Khartoum; Bishop Paride Taban, retired bishop of Torit; and John Ashworth, acting director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute in South Africa and an adviser to Catholic Relief Services in Sudan, told an audience at the University of Notre Dame and a nationwide audience watching via the Internet Oct. 5 2010 that the need to preserve peace after the referendum is vital to the region’s future.

They said a return to civil war would serve no purpose other than to preserve the power of the Islamic government based in Khartoum and allow for the continued oppression of ethnic and religious minorities.

The trio was touring the United States to express their concerns about growing tensions in Sudan as the referendum approaches. They were to meet with U.S. and U.N. officials in Washington and New York starting Oct. 11.

“Southerners are going to vote overwhelmingly for separation,” Ashworth said. “But the government in Khartoum doesn’t want separation to happen.”

Bishop Taban echoed Ashworth’s comment, saying, “The people of the South are beating day and night the drum of secession, independence.”

Ashworth cautioned that even if the vote is overwhelmingly in favor of independence, the outcome could be nullified. He cited a provision under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended decades of civil war requiring that at least 60 percent of registered voters turn out in order for the referendum to be official.

“Given the difficulties of a country like Sudan, without communication, without roads, it’s going to be very difficult to get people to vote,” Ashworth said. “There is fear among people that ghost voters will be registered and then not vote.”

The role of the church will be vital to maintaining peace, both bishops said. They also raised concerns about the status and safety of Christians, non-Muslims and ethnic minorities who relocated to the North during the civil war.

Bishop Adwok, who chairs the Justice and Peace Commission of the Sudanese bishops’ conference, said the Catholic Church has gained the respect of people of all faiths because of efforts to provide shelter, food and other basic necessities to war victims.

He also cited the church’s 101 Days of Prayer for Peace in Sudan campaign that will continue until the referendum takes place for maintaining that respect. The campaign involves a wide array of prayer vigils and peace-building activities across the country.

“The church plays a major role and it plays it in the eyes of the people,” he said. "They look at the church as another government, an alternative government.

“You would be surprised to hear from me that I am being questioned by the people: Should they vote in the referendum or not? I say, ‘This question is not for a bishop. It’s for a politician.’ This shows how the church has been walking with the people all these years,” he said.

The situation is complicated by the presence of oil reserves, the lack of specific boundaries marking the South from the North and questions about displaced people from the South who remain in northern territories, the panelists said.

Specifically, about 85 percent of Sudan’s oil reserves are located in the South. No plan to share revenues generated by the oil has been discussed and the absence of an agreement would feed the possible renewal of hostilities, Ashworth said.

Whether such issues are solved by Jan. 9 remains questionable, he added. “What is clear is that Southern people want to secede and there’s a real possibility they will declare independence unilaterally,” he said. “What we’re hearing is if they declare independence as a last resort and followed all legal means, then it will be relatively easy for the international community to recognize that independence. If they don’t exhaust all legal means, it will be more difficult to recognize independence.”

Ashworth urged the U.N. to send in large numbers of election monitors as soon as possible in an effort to promote a free and fair referendum. He also called for the world body to “provide protection for the people” so they do not fear casting their ballots under the shadow of war.

Among the sponsors of the discussion were Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, the Catholic Peacebuilding Network and several programs related to peace and international studies at the university.

Copyright © 2010 Catholic News Service Reprinted with Permission of CNS.