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Pay attention to Sudan

[Episcopal News Service] Last September, I met a man named Cimbir in Juba, Sudan. He was beginning his third long year away from his wife and family, studying at Bishop Gwynne Theological College, a seminary of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. One of the few mementos he brought with him from home was a picture of an open grassy area. This, he said, was where his home had been until it was burned down during Sudan's long civil war. He had fled to Khartoum where he lived as a refugee for many years. Now, with peace on the horizon, he is intent on returning home once again, building the church, preaching a Gospel of reconciliation and restoration, and helping his parishioners settle into their new lives.

The home Cimbir showed me is in the Nuba Mountains, a region just on the northern side of the north-south border and one that has long had a tense relationship with the Khartoum government. For the last few weeks, bombs have again been falling on Cimbir's home. Unknown scores of people are being killed and hundreds of thousands more displaced as United Nations' peacekeepers stand by impotently. The destruction, concentrated in Southern Kordofan state, which the Nuba Mountains are part of, is immense. The few outside observers remaining in the region have compared the killing to a "Darfur redux." Initial reports indicate the military targeted people based on their ethnicity, Nubans – like Cimbir – especially so. Meanwhile, world leaders and media have largely averted their gaze.

Sudan is in a fragile position as it prepares to split in two on July 9. Southerners, who have fought two long civil wars with the north, voted overwhelmingly – and overwhelmingly peacefully – in January to secede from the north. Now, as independence day approaches, the north is ratcheting up the military pressure on the south. In late May, the northern army seized the disputed Abyei region. That move and the recent attacks in Southern Kordofan are thought to be part of an attempt by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to bolster his own position and provoke the south into responding militarily, thus giving him a pretext to deny the legitimacy of southern independence.

As these geopolitics play out, however, countless numbers of people are dying, the suffering is growing, and no one is paying attention. No one, that is, except the church. The church – primarily the Episcopal Church of Sudan and the Roman Catholic church – is the country's largest non-governmental organization with a presence in even the smallest and most remote villages. When bombs began to fall in the Nuba Mountains and northern soldiers began rampaging through the streets of Southern Kordofan's capital, it was church members who used their networks to alert the outside world what was happening. They did this even as they bore the brunt of the attack. The new cathedral in the town of Kadugli was burned and several priests and church members were among those killed.

As South Sudan prepares for its formal transition to full independence, the scale of the challenges it faces – even apart from the tenuous relationship with the north – is overwhelming. The new country is slightly smaller than Texas but lacks almost all critical infrastructure – hospitals, schools, and paved roads. More than 90 percent of its people live on less than a dollar a day and an Oxfam report concluded a teenage girl has a greater chance of dying in child-birth than completing primary school. The government is overwhelmed and is spending its money on arms in case it needs to defend itself from further northern aggression.

In the midst of this stands the church, which across the country is building schools, digging wells, running innovative agriculture projects, and training ever more leaders – like Cimbir – to carry out this work. Refugees returning from two decades of civil war are building hopeful futures thanks to the work of the church. But the church needs the support of the outside world to ensure peace is secured. As the attacks in Southern Kordofan show, the church can sound the warning – and few listen. This is unusual. The world has a history of acknowledging the church's witness for peace. Desmond Tutu won a Nobel Peace prize for his opposition to apartheid. El Salvador's Oscar Romero is carved into the wall of Westminister Abbey. In Sudan, that support is nowhere to be found.

Cimbir graduated from seminary early this month. His wife and children fled the bombings and are now displaced in Khartoum. Cimbir has been reunited with them but it's a long way from home and the violence is continuing. As I read reports of the destruction in Southern Kordofan, I am reminded of Cimbir's eagerness to return home and the plans he has to rebuild his home, his church, and his community. Sudanese like Cimbir can take the lead in rebuilding their shattered country – but only if we first begin paying attention.

-- Jesse Zink is a student Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and the author of Grace at the Garbage Dump: Making Sense of Mission in the 21st Century, which will be published by Cascade Press in 2012. He blogs at http://jessezink.wordpress.com.

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Copyright © 2011 Episcopal News Service