Local South Sudanese government officials and tribal elders have gathered in Yei River County in Jonglei state Sunday for a three-day Peace Conference under the sponsorship of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), to discuss the role of the church in helping end tribal violence and prevent future conflict.
The unprecedented meeting, which lasts until Tuesday, united local officials, U.S. and African Evangelicals and members of four tribes, Murle, Dinka, Nuer and Anyuak, in the Eastern region of the country, which has suffered from tribal violence sparked by disputes over pastoral grounds for cattle, the main local source of income. Fighting between these tribes has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and thousands of injuries in the past six months, it has been estimated.
Among the conference's participants were the Rev. Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, WEA's CEO and Secretary General; Dr. Brian C. Stiller, WEA Global Ambassador; Stephen Tollestrup, WEA Director of Peace and Reconciliation Initiative; and the Rev. Aiah Foday-Khabenje, General Secretary of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa (AEA). Also in attendance were local church leaders, including Bishop John Machar Thou of the Anglican Diocese of Duk and Bishop James Par Tap, Moderator at the Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Khartoum, part of the Church of Sudan.
Participants mostly agreed on what some reports have already been suggesting -- that ending tribal violence in the region would require improving socio-economic conditions, especially ending poverty and bettering education of the local tribal population. The role of the international Christian community in supporting meeting these goals was also discussed.
"Our intention is to find out what do we do together to overcome our past. All the wrong things that have happened, what can we do together as the sons of South Sudan and the children of God to make a difference," Bishop Elias Taban of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan said Sunday in a sermon, addressing the conference on its first day.
Taban named poverty, lack of education and illiteracy, and lacking health services, as well as depending only on cattle for income, as the main problems in the region, leading consequently to violence between tribes. The bishop called to participants for support in aiding the tribes to become more settled and less nomadic. Others later joined in suggesting that the tribes must learn techniques for growing cattle grass rather than relying on natural pastures, and that the tribes must develop the ability to find other sources of income.
"We were very moved by and challenged by the sermon message this morning by Bishop Elias Taban. It reminded me of what we have gone through since the 1950s. The most difficult task has taken us over 50 years to achieve but there are still challenges that we face," said later that day Jonglei State Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Babriel Gai Riem, referring to the fact that South Sudan only became an independent state in 2010.
General Secretary of WEA, the Rev. Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, emphasized in his speech later that the U.S. Evangelical church has been supporting the newly established and mostly Christian country for years. "We know the story of Sudan and the birth of South Sudan has been a story of pain," he said. "I want to remind you that the church around the world loves the people of South Sudan. God loves the people of South Sudan."
"We know there has been serious violence and loss of life but because we believe in the gospel we are a people of hope," Tunnicliffe added. "The gospel is about reconciliation because it is the gospel that reconciles us to God. And we also believe that we can be reconciled to one another because we are all connected."
Foday-Khabenje, AEA's General Secretary, also expressed the organization's support for the people of South Sudan, emphasizing the unity of African churches. "If I am here, then 35 countries in Africa and around 1 million evangelical Christians are here with you and indeed the global Christian Church is here," he said.
"If one Christian is hurting, if one denomination is hurting, it is reason enough for the whole church to rise up. So this concern of EPC for Jonglei State is enough to bring the whole evangelical church to stand with you," he added. "Our prayer is that a process of peace and a journey towards peace will begin over these few days and will join together the Government, the church, the tribal leaders and the people."
Ethnic tensions in the region have flared after the country gained independence from the overwhelmingly Muslim Sudan in July 2010, as tribes fight over grazing lands and water rights, reportedly leading to cattle raids and the abduction of women and children. In addition, the conflict between the Lou Nuer and Murle ethnic groups is reportedly taking on a dynamic of repeated revenge attacks. Thousands are believed to have been at least temporarily displaced in the recent six months, including children, while government officials and aid groups have often been unable to gain sufficient access into the embattled region.
In resource-scarce East Africa, minority groups face major challenges over the control of and access to land and other natural resources.
Some international Christian think tanks suggested that in the long term, the government must address the root causes of violence among minority communities, and those are political representation, disarmament and equitable distribution of natural resources.
Kuol Manyang Juuk, the governor of Jonglei State said Sunday, during the conference, that the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, has taken some significant steps toward preventing violence. Among those were issuing a presidential decree ordering disarmament of the civil population in the state and forming a National Peace Committee headed by Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, the Rev. Bishop Daniel Deng Bul, to supplement state initiatives on peace building.