The world's largest network of evangelicals has committed itself to taking measures to ensure that the critical referendum in Southern Sudan is a success.
In an address to Southern Sudan's senior political leaders this past week, Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, promised his organization would take action in response to calls for assistance from Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir and the Sudan Council of Churches.
"The people of Sudan have suffered for many years," the evangelical leader noted during last week's government-church forum. "Now is the time for a new future that will bring peace, wholeness, dignity, freedom of belief and freedom from extreme poverty. The people of Sudan deserve nothing less."
Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has been wracked by civil war and ongoing political and military violence. In 1983, that violence escalated when Christians in the South say they were forced to take up arms to protect their freedom to worship and to ensure they protect their identity as African Christians amid a government effort to impose Islamic law on the south.
The fighting that ensued between the mainly Muslim north and the majority Christian and animist south has since left some 1.5 million Sudanese killed and more than four million displaced.
It wasn't until about five years ago that government officials in North Sudan and rebel leaders in South Sudan signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) to end the more than two decades of civil war.
Under the terms of the 2005 agreement, a government of national unity was to be formed for a transitional period of six years. During this time, the South would be autonomous, and at the end of the six-year period a referendum would be held on the issue of a unified Sudan or secession of the South.
With the referendum coming up in just three months, international observers have voiced their concern over the potential return to war that could result if anything were to go wrong.
"The threat of open war in and after the referendum period is the most serious thing of all and that signals a return to what have been decades of slaughter and poverty and utter instability in a very large and vulnerable country," stated head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, recently.
Aiah Forday-Khabenje, general secretary of the Association of Evangelicals of Africa (AEA), similarly voiced the importance of the next three months during the government-church forum at which Tunnicliffe spoke.
"[I]t is imperative that the country does not slide back into another destructive cycle of conflict and poverty," he stated. "We are looking to governments to honor the commitment they made to ensure that the referendum goes ahead on time and that it does not result in further suffering for the people of Sudan."
Notably, observers say preparations for the south's Jan. 9 independence referendum are well behind schedule. The north–south border hasn't been demarcated and there is little agreement on who is eligible to vote, reported aid group Oxfam. Southern Sudan, in response, has been contending that northern Sudanese officials are intentionally delaying preparations for the vote.
"The longer uncertainty drags on, the more likely violence could flare up," said Charlotte Scawen, acting head of Oxfam in Southern Sudan. "People here are waiting eagerly for the chance to decide their future and expectations are extremely high."
For its part, the WEA said it would take a number of actions to ensure the referendum's success, including mobilizing the global community in prayer, mobilizing its national alliances to lobby their respective governments, and launching a "Peace for Sudan" fund, among other commitments.
The WEA also said it would support holistic development, peace-building, reconciliation and good governance through its global community of churches and NGOs; advocate on behalf of the people of Southern Sudan at the highest governmental and institutional levels; and work with its global community to send international observers to the Sudan for the referendum.
As the world's largest association of evangelical Christians, the WEA serves as a voice for the roughly 420 million evangelicals it represents through 128 national evangelical alliances located in seven regions and 104 associate member organizations and global networks.
Aside from serving as a voice to governments, media, and other faith communities, the WEA holds consultative status at the United Nations.