South Sudan’s jubilation a model for Africa

Father Christopher Townsend, a first-rate Catholic journalist and the secretary for communications of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, was in Juba, the capital of the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, for the independence ceremonies. It was an emotional time for him and for all Africans. He sent this dispatch this morning, sharing his thoughts about the new nation and a time when his own country had to come to terms with its past and walk brightly to a new future.

“On the eve of independence in South Sudan, I was sitting under trees with a small community of neighbours in an area called ‘High Jerusalem’ The afternoon leading to the evening had an atmosphere I can only describe as high point South African — the sort of feeling we had during our own transition in 1994 and the feeling of the World Cup 2010. I had even heard vuvuzelas. Flags everywhere.

“Sitting near the Nile, in the insect dark, we were celebrating a meal. The South Sudanese had decided on this night of liberation that there would be a type of passover seder. Stories of pain, oppression and slavery were followed by stories of hope. Bread was shared, songs and the new national anthem was sung, candles were lit and there was dancing — the quiet, eager dignity of a people set free.

“I couldn’t help thinking that this is what we should have done in 1994 — encouraging neighbours to take their time to share stories. But maybe we weren’t ready, with our apartheid living and apartheid minds. Maybe it is something that we can imitate though — a chance to tell stories and listen, not to public hearings, but the personal TRCs among neighbours.

“On the day, sitting under the shade reserved for the not quite VVIPs (thankfully so — we didn’t get as burnt as they did) with a press of bodies around us constantly streaming forward to see this new day, was an experience in humility. For while we were there as guests, friends, donors, supporters, this was not our day.

“The Jubilation of seeing the flag raised, the quiet confidence of a new constitution and country was only outdone, for me, by the ‘hand of god’ moment when the power failed before [President Omar] al Bashir could start speaking. When he eventually finished, the crowd gave him a very polite, almost English, clap and then spontaneously stood up and waved him off. Priceless. An unmistakable sign.

“Al Bashir and his policies of Islamicization and Arabification are the latest in the long timeline of the former Sudan’s struggle with identity and centralization. Even before the coup that bought this particular latest calculating genocidal barbarian to power (these words are carefully chosen and used), the dynamic in Sudan had been Khartoum directed. Almost all post-colonial leadership has come from four small ethnic groups — Arab, Islamic, northern.

“Powerfully, South Sudan has committed to reverse these tendencies of centralization, coercive religious compliance and a single Arab identity by publicly committing to a multicultural, diverse and secular state.

“The Republic of South Sudan has a long way to go — the lack of development and infrastructure is chronic. Many Southerners who were in the North have fled south to few schools and less opportunity.

“But arriving at the very little Airport of Juba, six months after departing after the referendum, clearly shows how great the energy is for explosive growth — South Sudan is a country of enormous potential.

“As the Catholic Archbishop of Juba, Paulinus Loro, said on welcoming his guests to a certain chaos before the celebrations, we have never been a country before.”

For more on the independence of South Sudan, check out the stories on the CNS homepage. Also read CNS Rome correspondent Cindy Wooden’s post earlier today about the visit of Pope John Paul 11 to Sudan in 1993.

Remembering Blessed John Paul’s words in Sudan

VATICAN CITY — In his weekly editorial for Vatican television and radio, the papal spokesman marked the independence of South Sudan by reminding listeners of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Sudan in 1993 and the extremely strong words he used to defend the rights of Christians in the predominantly Muslim nation.

I was with Pope John Paul for that visit in February 1993 when we spent just eight hours in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, at the end of a week-long trip that also included Benin and Uganda.

The 50 or 60 journalists traveling with the pope had only a couple international phone lines and telex machines to use to file our stories. I remember feeling fairly panicked that I wouldn’t be able to file my story before we had to head back to the airport for the flight back to Rome. In those days, before everyone had fast internet connections, it usually didn’t matter if we had to wait a day to file.

Pope John Paul II was greeted by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir when he arrived in Sudan in February 1993. (CNS/Arturo Mari, L'Osservatore Romano)

But Pope John Paul was blatant and bold as he denounced the persecution of Sudanese Christians. He said their names were written “on the palms of the hands of Christ, pierced by the nails of the crucifixion.”

There were soldiers carrying guns everywhere. It was the first time I’d seen military with weapons standing in plain sight on the platform where the pope was celebrating Mass. (It was also the first and only time I’ve seen camels grazing at the edge of a field where a papal Mass was being celebrated.)

In the end, I only got one story out from Khartoum, but it included news of the pope’s meeting with President Omar al-Bashir, who is still in office. The pope told al-Bashir, who came to power in a 1989 military coup, that the measure of a national government’s maturity is the way it respects human rights and protects its minorities.

And Pope John Paul told church workers that when he looked at what was going on in Sudan, “I see clearly a particular reproduction of the mystery of Calvary in the lives of the majority of Christian people.”

As Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the papal spokesman, pointed out in his editorial, it’s been more than 18 years since Pope John Paul visited the African nation, “an estimated 2 million people have died and 4 million were displaced, but now there are hopes that the war really is over and that the new Republic of South Sudan, desired by an overwhelming majority of its inhabitants, can start a new chapter in peace.”

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