Catholic News Service photo
Members of the Christ the King Parish in Malakal, southern Sudan, sing and dance during Mass. The community is located near what could become the tense border with the north.
Catholic News Service photo
Members of the Christ the King Parish in Malakal, southern Sudan, sing and dance during Mass. The community is located near what could become the tense border with the north.
Members of the Catholic community in Oregon are speaking out and praying in advance of a Jan. 9 independence referendum in Sudan. Residents of the southern part of the troubled African nation are seeking to break from the more powerful and affluent north. Potential is high for violence with religious implications, as the two regions are split, among other ways, along Muslim and Christian lines.

Sudan has been wracked by civil war and genocide over the past two decades. Some onlookers fear a resumption as the vote nears after six years of fragile truce.     

The student council at the University of Portland has passed a resolution for peace in Sudan, one of many U.S. Catholic groups seeking to forestall bloodshed.

"College students are interested in the referendum in Sudan because many students are aware of the severe violence that Sudan has endured in the past," says Elizabeth Keaveny, a junior Spanish studies major and one of the sponsors of the resolution. "Students want peace for Sudan and we are doing what we can here to support the Sudanese a world away."  

Keaveny is a campus representative for Catholic Relief Services, the church's overseas aid agency. At the urging of the Sudnese Catholic bishops, CRS has led a U.S. peacebuilding campaign for Sudan, promoting prayer, letter writing and donations for the cause.

Kim Waller, another CRS associate at the University of Portland who co-wrote the student council resolution, says the idea is to alleviate the violence before it can start.

"The situation of Sudan is more than an urgent cry for help, it is humanity’s urgent spiritual obligation to step in and help the Sudanese people in a time of need," Waller says.

Amnesty International has estimated that the Sudanese civil war and genocide in the Darfur region have displaced 6.5 million people and killed about 2.3 million.
At St. Andrew Parish in Portland, the topic has been covered in a homily and an adult education session. Sudan gets mentioned in the prayers of the faithful. Some parishioners took star ornaments with photos of Sudanese citizens and placed the images on Christmas trees as a way to remember.  

"It is a very momentous time in Sudan’s history," says Jeanine Boucher-Colbert, a Portland-based Catholic Relief Services organizer. "The Catholic community has been asked to step up and stand in solidarity with the people there."

Peace prayers are even more intense in Sudan. Every Saturday in the southern town of Wau, Natalina Mabo walks through the streets. With her are several hundred people following a candle lantern — they call it a "peace torch" — that symbolizes their longing for an end to the violence that has racked the south of Sudan for decades.

The lantern and the march are part of a 101-day campaign for a peace in face of the referendum.

Mabo, coordinator of the justice and peace commission for the Catholic Diocese of Wau, says that southerners seem to be putting divisions aside to unite for independence.       

"There is something good going on," Mabo explained. "It's not like before. Now you can see Southerners united, even the political parties. We've changed our mind. There is a sense of unity among Southerners now that we never saw before. Because of the 101-day campaign, people all around the world are praying for Sudan. And things are changing as a result."  

Tensions are running high in communities along what many expect will become a new international border with northern Sudan.

Packed buses arrive in Malakal daily with southerners coming home from the north. Church workers report the exodus is fueled by the fear of being attacked should the south vote to separate.

Similarly afraid in any possible post-referendum violence, Arab traders in the town's market are closing their shops and heading north, causing the price of basic commodities to rise as the flow of commercial goods from Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, grinds to a halt.

Armies from the two sides, camped out here in close proximity, eye each other with mistrust.

"Our emergency preparedness program is studying where the flashpoints will be, where we're likely to have problems," said Father Peter Othow, coordinator of development and aid for the Malakal Diocese. "We're getting ready to host people should they flee their villages because of clashes on the border."