Advocacy Groups Urge Sustained Attention on Sudan Vote

Halfway into the tightly watched weeklong independence vote, Southern Sudan has the 60 percent of votes needed to validate the referendum.

Nearly 2.3 million voters have voted so far, Ann Itto of Southern Sudan's ruling Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement announced Wednesday.

All eyes are on the landmark vote that could split Africa's largest country in two. Before the vote began on Sunday, advocacy groups were doubtful that the referendum would happen on time or happen at all.

"We're pleased that Sunday's vote started on time and it looks to be credible at this point," said Sam Bell, executive director of the Genocide Intervention Network/Save Darfur Coalition, during a conference call Tuesday.

Evangelical groups are also doing their part to ensure a peaceful voting process. Responding to calls by local churches in Sudan, the World Evangelical Alliance and the Asia Evangelical Alliance sent a team of four people to Sudan and another four to Kenya to monitor the voting.

"[T]he evangelical community is very concerned with the issue of justice and one of the ways in which justice can be seen to be done in any country is through the voice of the people and in the case of South Sudan through the ballot," Sophie Nyokabi, national coordinator of Micah Challenge Kenya, told The Christian Post in an email.

According to Nyokabi, there have been no reported incidences of irregularity at the polling stations so far. In fact, the evangelical delegation has observed a peaceful process with assistance given to the elderly and physically challenged to ensure their participation in the historic vote on whether to secede or not from north Sudan.

Some violence broke out in Abyei, a disputed oil-rich region in central Sudan. At least 33 people died.

While not downplaying the violence, advocacy groups are so far pleased with the voting process and the international attention it has received. They warn, however, that the attention has to be maintained, especially during the six months after the vote when a new country is expected to officially emerge.

"Going forward is going to be the key challenge," said David Sullivan, director of research at the Enough Project.

The to-do list over the next six months includes finding a political solution to the contested area of Abyei, completing the demarcation of the north/south border, negotiations around key issues such as oil and wealth sharing and debt, and the creation of a new constitution.

While many concerns lie in helping South Sudan stand on its own feet, another important concern is the future of Muslim majority North Sudan and the religious freedom there. Some fear that the persecution of the Christian minority will intensify after the expected secession.

"To ensure the stability of South Sudan, we need to ensure the stability of North Sudan as well," said Amir Osman, senior director of Policy and Government Relations at Genocide Intervention Network/Save Darfur Coalition.

He pointed to concerns regarding Sudan President Omar al-Bashir's recent comments that he would apply Sharia (Islamic) law to North Sudan after the south secedes. The Sudanese president also mentioned that the north would be homogeneous once the country splits, a statement Osman considers "silly" and untrue.

David Abramowitz, director of Policy and Government Relations at Humanity United, stressed that this is an area where the international community will have to stay engaged in.

"It's going to have to be part of the advocacy ... to try to see whether there can continue to be a role for the international community in promoting a constitution that will allow for a peaceful North Sudan, including on the issue of religious freedom," he said.

This week's referendum is part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which was signed to end more than two decades of civil war. The war left some 2 million people dead.

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