(Photo: REUTERS/James Akena)
Christian pastors and priests have been providing shelter and saving lives as a deadly ethnic conflict rages on in South Sudan.
"What these people have done deserves to be told publicly to strongly emphasize the role that churches can play in shaping the future of our country," South Sudanese priest Fr. Mark Oper Omolm shared with Agenzia Fides, the news agency of the Vatican, as he detailed several accounts of Roman Catholic priests and Protestant pastors risking their lives to save civilians.
In one such account, Evangelical Pastor Abraham Makuac saved several Nuer people following fighting in the capital, Juba. He opened his house and church to protect civilians, despite having lost his own brother who was brutally killed in the fighting.
South Sudan, which became the world's youngest nation following its independence from Sudan in 2011, has been locked in intense fighting for the past three weeks, according to Reuters, which has resulted in at least 1,000 deaths and over 200,000 people displaced.
The ethnically-charged conflict flared up between supporters of President Salva Kiir and recently deposed vice president Riek Machar, who make up members of the Dinka and Nuer groups, respectively.
"Mass extrajudicial killings, the targeting of individuals on the basis of their ethnicity and arbitrary detentions have been documented in recent days," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in December. "We have discovered a mass grave in Bentiu, in Unity State, and there are reportedly at least two other mass graves in Juba."
Most recently, South Sudanese rebels loyal to Machar turned down a government proposal to resume peace talks on Wednesday, after Kiir refused a demand by the rebels for the release of 11 detainees, held over an alleged coup plot.
Close to 60 percent of South Sudanese are said to be Christians, but the young country still finds itself in turmoil divided along ethnic lines.
Fr. Omolm shared also shared the account of a Presbyterian pastor from Shilluk who "worked strenuously to save human lives during the fighting in Malakal."
Pastor Michael Abang offered safety at his house and church to both Dinka and Nuer families, and in the aftermath of the fighting he was seen helping in the collection of dead bodies, according to Omolm.
Fr. Paulino Lual, a Catholic priest of the Dinka group, was almost murdered by Dinka soldiers after creating a network of volunteers to protect Nuer people in Aweil. "This priest is known for his courage and firmness in condemning tribalism, corruption and all sort of social ills in the country," Fr. Omolm stated.
And yet another Catholic priest, Fr. Joseph Makuei of the Nuer group, organized volunteers to protect and save people in Bentiu, accompanying them to the U.N. premises for safety.
The International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer has described the ongoing situation in the African country as "dire."
"South Sudan is facing a serious crisis that comes on top of a situation that was already difficult," Maurer said in a statement Wednesday following a three-day visit.
"It is unquestionable that the needs are dire, but their full scope is unknown."