Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland plan to visit South Sudan in February 2023 to try and move the nation towards peace.
The three church leaders will meet church and civil groups. The visit follows a retreat held at the Vatican in 2019, when South Sudanese political leaders were urged to end a civil war that has cost more than 400,000 lives.
Churches are powerful authorities in South Sudan, where many people are Christian (estimates of 60%-80% are highly contested). When South Sudanese political leaders visited the Vatican in 2019, the pope surprised people by kissing the feet of President Salva Kiir and opposition leader (and former vice president) Riek Machar, as the pontiff urged them towards peace.
I have spent a decade carrying out research on peace and conflict in South Sudan, and research suggests that the two big challenges these religious leaders face are understanding both why people are not ready to forgive and why local institutions face difficulties helping resolve the violence.
Religious leaders have previously called on people to forgive each other as part of a move towards peace. In my forthcoming book I highlight how, for many South Sudanese, forgiveness is seen as undesirable when the violence of the perpetrator is ongoing, and doesn’t provide accountability.
People also feel this ignores people’s obligations to those who were killed during war. Among the communities where I have researched, people want compensation in order to provide for the family of the dead, to keep their memory alive and to allow full reconciliation.
Christian churches have sensibly sought to work with existing peacemaking institutions and not only with political leaders. Local peacemaking is also subject to ongoing, high-level political interference including through the remaking of the meanings of peace rituals.
In areas where I conducted research, decades of governments’ legal reforms, shifting economies and the lack of compensation in peacemaking had undermined local institutions’ ability to end violence.
Decades of armed conflicts have had political, social and spiritual consequences. Local beliefs have long suggested that killers and their communities become subject to “spritual pollution” that can have deadly physical manifestations, such as sickness, and that can only be resolved through rituals and reconciliation.
Armed combatants have tried to remake rituals to protect themselves from this “pollution”, but the scale of killing, the use of guns and the patterns of violence all leave fears that situation is unresolved.
Religious authorities, including those largely invisible to the international community such as Nuer prophets and Dinka spear masters, have a powerful role in setting the moral limits of lethal violence, and deciding how war should be fought and resolved.
Understanding the past
Wars for a separate South Sudan state started soon after Sudan’s independence from Britain in 1956. Peacemaking by Christian churches in what is now South Sudan also has a long history.
It has also often involved collaboration between different churches including Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians. In 1972, the World Council of Churches hosted peace negotiations that ended the war between the Sudan government and the Anyanya rebels who were fighting for southern independence.
From 1983 until the 2005 peace agreement, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) fought against the Sudan government. To gain international support and local recruits, from the 1990s the SPLA framed the conflict in religious terms.
These terms pitted the pro-Christian SPLA in what is now South Sudan against the Islamic Sudan government. However, much of the fighting in the 1990s and 2000s was between South Sudanese groups.
The SPLA v Sudan government wars ended with the 2005 peace agreement that made the SPLA the official army of the south and promised a referendum on southern independence. In 2006, the SPLA absorbed large numbers of anti-SPLA troops from elsewhere in the South in order to reduce divisions between groups. South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011.
Armed conflict escalated again in South Sudan in December 2013 when the army divided along the historic pro- and anti-SPLA lines. This fighting
included the targeting of civilians and led to regional rebellions and the rapid rise of armed opposition.
In 2018, a peace agreement was signed by the South Sudan government and the largest armed opposition group. However, fighting continued between the government and groups who did not sign the agreement.
In early 2022, armed conflict resulted in the government gaining territory from opposition parties who had signed the peace agreement. At the end of 2022, violence broke out between political factions in Upper Nile state, and offensives were carried out in Jonglei state by groups historically aligned to the opposition.
What’s been tried before?
In the late 1990s, international and local church leaders engaged with South Sudanese chiefs and other local religious leaders to try to end violent divisions. A meeting in the village of Wunlit was considered a success both because communities resumed peaceful relationships, but also because their political leaders were apparently forced to reconcile. This prompted churches to support dozens of similar processes over the subsequent decades.
From 2014, South Sudanese church leaders were official observers at the internationally brokered peace meetings. Church leaders have also publicly criticised the warring parties when they have not supported peace.
One part of my upcoming research describes how South Sudanese, over the last century, have often understood governments and warring parties as “god-like” because they claim to be able to arbitrarily show favour or destruction, without accountability. In such a context, religious authorities have a particularly important role in holding governments and warring parties to account.
To end these wars, church leaders need to take seriously the politics and potential violence of peace and forgiveness.