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Religious Leaders Urge Strong International Support Ahead of Sudan Referendum

  • Victoria Cavaliere

Religious leaders from southern Sudan are urging strong international pressure on Sudan's northern-based government to ensure a January referendum on independence for the South takes place on time. Preparations for the vote have been running behind schedule and tensions have risen between Khartoum and the semi-autonomous government in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. The fears have risen that the country could slip back into civil war should the referendum be delayed.

South Sudan was granted the right to hold the January 9, 2011 referendum – which is widely expected to lead to independence – in a 2005 peace agreement with the Khartoum government that ended Africa's longest civil war.

With less than two months before the vote, some analysts and diplomats fear that Sudan could slip back into war again.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month called the country a "ticking time bomb". She said the south's move to independence will be a very hard fact for the north to face – and the threat of war is a distinct reality.

A group of religious leaders from Southern Sudan gathered at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City recently, and said the south's secession appears inevitable.

Samul Kobia, the Ecumenical Special Envoy to the Sudan from the All Africa Conference of Churches says international support for the south after the referendum is essential.

"Without the international community taking their role and responsibility seriously and to try to use whatever leverage that we have, we are likely to see that this process and the framework of the CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement] which has been the best way of resolving the conflict in Sudan peacefully, will not lead to the results that are being anticipated," Kobia said.

One of the key issues that is yet to be finalized is the demarcation of Sudan's oil-rich north – south border and the status of Abyei region, which lies in that area. Talks on Abyei's status have been delayed.

Earlier this month a Sudanese military official accused southern troops of crossing a disputed border point, saying the move threatened to derail the referendum.

Ramadan Chan, General Secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches, calls for an international security forces to be stationed along the border before and after the vote.

"As we speak, now, both sides – the government of southern Sudan, the government of the north – have actually moved heavy armies to the border and there is just a little distance between them," said Chan. "It will only take two or three soldiers to fire arms and then we have war. And so, the international community, we feel can play a bigger role by creating a buffer zone between these two armies."

U.N. peacekeepers have already stepped up monitoring along the north-south frontier, and the U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain LeRoy told the Security Council recently that the U.N. Mission in Sudan was considering deploying troops from the rest of the country to the region.

The religious leaders also said monitoring of the referendum process must be robust, as there are fears on both sides that the vote will be rigged.

John Ashworth, Director of the Dennis Hurley Conference of Churches, said the international community must be prepared to handle a possible dispute of the results – or Khartoum's refusal to allow the south to declare independence.

"We were in a diplomatic mission where we were told, oh, unilateral declaration of independence is unacceptable," Ashworth said. "So actually, we've already told Khartoum that if you rig the election, if you manage to find a way that the referendum gives a result that doesn't respect the rights of the southerners, don't worry, because we've already told the southerners that they can't find any way of expressing their self-determination."

Also of particular concern to the panel was the safety of the safety of churches, Christians and the some 2.5 million southern Sudanese living in the north.

Reverend Ramadan Chan said considerations over the safety of these people and institutions has not yet been adequately addressed.

"So far, the church has suffered under the government, the present government, and we feel if secession happens, the north will opt for an Islamic Country, and therefore the Christians and the churches in the north will suffer persecution," Chan added.

The north-south war was separate from the conflict in Sudan's Western region of Darfur. This war has left about 300-thousand people dead and thousands more homeless families.

The United Nations has been pressing for a final peace agreement in Darfur before the January 9 referendum.