Darfuri Muslims are working with Christians to build a church in Southern Sudan as a symbol of reconciliation and gratitude.
The Muslims, members of the Darfur Students Association at the University of Juba, say they want to express gratitude to Lopez Lomong, a Sudan-born American track and field athlete who has publicly urged China to pressure the Sudanese government to end the conflict in Darfur.
Lomong had the honor of carrying the U.S. flag in the Opening Ceremony at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. He is a member of Team Darfur, a coalition of Olympic athletes that call for the end to the violence against Darfurians.
"We appreciate that Lopez stood up for us in Beijing," said Rudwan Dawod, president of the Darfur Students Association at the University of Juba, in a statement this week. "We are helping to build this church to show we never again want the people of Darfur to be used against their brothers in the South."
Around 200 Darfuri Muslims have volunteered to build the Roman Catholic church in Kimotong, Southern Sudan – the home village of Lomong. The construction process began in January and is slated to be completed this fall.
"As Sudanese Christians celebrate Holy Week, we want them all to know about this church," said Dr. Abdelgabar Adam, the president of Darfur Human Rights Organizations USA. "It is our way, as Darfuri Muslims, to thank every Sudanese Christian who has helped us in our hour of need.
"We need our brothers in the South to stand with us now more than ever, so that we will have a just peace," added Adam, whose organization is partnering with Kansas-based non-profit group Sudan Sunrise in sponsoring the reconciliation church project.
Composed of American and Sudanese Christians and Muslims, Sudan Sunrise works to achieve reconciliation and end the oppression in Sudan. The organization also works with Sudanese born former NBA player Manute Bol, who at 7'7'' is the tallest player in NBA history.
Bol lost 250 family members at the hands of the Muslim North during the Second Sudanese Civil War. He is working with Sudan Sunrise to build 41 schools that will benefit Southern Sudanese Christian, Darfurian and Muslim children alike.
"Muslims are not my enemies," Bol said, according to Sudan Sunrise. "They are my brothers."
The Darfurian Muslims who are helping to build the church in Lomong's home village will also be helping to build Bol's first school. It was actually the Muslim-Christian joint effort for Bol's school that led to the vision of reconciliation church.
"The people of Kimotong were so happy to welcome our brothers and sisters from Darfur," recalled Lomong. "We are all so excited about this church. It's awesome to have Northerners help build it. This church will be a symbol to all of Sudan that we can live in peace."
South Sudan's representative to the United States, Ezekiel Gatkuoth, also gave his blessings to reconciliation church.
"I hope the world will take notice of this church, which symbolizes the determination of so many Sudanese to find a peaceful way forward," said Gatkuoth. "We are so proud of having one of our sons, Lopez Lomong, represent Sudan in the Beijing Olympics. Mr. Lomong's continued work for peace and reconciliation is deeply appreciated."
Since 2003, more than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million displaced by ongoing conflicts in the western region of Darfur. The Sudanese Arab government is accused of unleashing Arab nomads against Darfurian civilians after the latter rebelled against the government.
A U.N. estimate earlier this year claimed that more than four million Darfurians remain directly affected by the conflict, both in Darfur and neighboring Chad. Many of these people have been living in temporary camps for up to six years and heavily rely on international aid to survive.
Lomong, though not a Darfurian, is also a victim of the Khartoum government. He is a Sudanese "Lost Boy" – the term used to describe the thousands of boys from Southern Sudan who were displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War, which killed about two million people between 1983 to 2005.
The United States has accepted thousands of these Lost Boys as refugees, among which Lomong is one. He came to the United States at age 16 and became a U.S. citizen in 2007.
In January, Lomong and five Darfurian Muslim students went to his home village to make compressed earth blocks for the church. The Sudanese-American athlete has returned to the United States to compete in track competitions and is also trying to raise funds for the $85,000 church through Sudan Sunrise.