The leader of The Episcopal Church is calling on members of her U.S. church body to observe "A Season of Prayer for Sudan" as the war-torn African nation prepares for a critical referendum to determine its future.
In a letter Wednesday to the denomination, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori hailed the five million-member Episcopal Church of Sudan for having been "a significant national leader and source for peace and reconciliation" throughout the hostilities and wars in recent decades.
"The Episcopal Church of Sudan … has been a leader in seeking basic human rights, including religious freedom, as well as the hard work of peacemaking," the U.S. church leader noted.
But now, as Sudan finds itself in "the throes of a national struggle for basic freedom and human rights," Jefferts Schori says The Episcopal Church must take up Sudan's fragile state as a matter for its own concern as a fellow member of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
"The world has a significant stake in peace in Sudan, for any violence unleashed there can quickly destabilize the surrounding nations of Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Congo, Central Africa, Chad, and Libya," the bishop noted.
Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has been wracked by civil war and ongoing political and military violence. Southern Sudan, which is home to Christians and those who practice African traditional religions, has fought for decades to become independent.
And in 1983, the violence escalated as 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 mostly Christian 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.
Though the agreement brought an end to more than 21 years of civil war, both the government and the rebels of the South were allowed to maintain their armies, keeping open the option to return to war.
Acknowledging Sudan's fragile state, Jefferts Schori challenged Episcopalians in America to pray for the people of Sudan, to learn more about the forces driving the violence, and to advocate for a peaceful referendum and – whatever the outcome – a peaceful future.
She noted the "high likelihood" for a re-emergence of violence in the build up to the referendum or in its aftermath, particularly over religious prejudice and control of the South's significant natural resources, particularly oil.
"The Episcopal Church can stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Sudan as we enter a season of preparation by prayer, study, and action," she stated after reporting about the resources that were prepared for the congregations and dioceses of The Episcopal Church for the "Season of Prayer."
"As we approach the season of preparation for the Prince of Peace, we pray that his reign may be made real in Sudan," Jefferts Schori concluded. "The prayers and labor of people throughout the world can help to prepare the way."
The referendum on self-determination and possible independence for Southern Sudan is scheduled to be held in January 2011. Many analysts expect the South to vote to secede.