In post-referendum Sudan, the coming break between North and South presents a host of unsettled details. There are borders to demarcate and natural resources to divide. These determinations will not be easy to make, and there will likely be conflict along the way.
But for all intents and purposes, the people of southern Sudan have seceded.
Following the January referendum in which over 98 percent of southern Sudanese opted for secession, a new country began to take shape. South Sudan will become the world's newest nation when they officially declare independence this July. And for Sudanese Christians, this event is an especially joyous occasion. After enduring years of violent religious persecution at the hands of radical Islamists from the north, many Christians believe the secession marks a new day of freedom.
Matthew Chancey, Founding Director of Persecution Project Foundation, says that for the overwhelming majority of civilians, "there is much celebration and excitement." The persecution endured by Christians throughout the South for decades appears to be coming to an end - but will peace last?
First Class Citizens
"That the referendum was completed in relative peace, was open and transparent, had wide participation and has been unchallenged is an answer to prayers," says Bill Andress of Sudan Advocacy Action Forum. "Some say it's a miracle. The Southern Sudanese are incredibly optimistic and joyful."
Brad Phillips, President of Persecution Project Foundation, says that the overwhelming result of the referendum "reflects the desire of all southerners to live as first class citizens in their own country."
Indeed, Phillips' words ring true for many Sudanese. Abiong Nyok is a housewife in southern Sudan. "The results of the referendum mean I am free today," she told BBC. "Now I am a first-class citizen in my own country."
For the moment, Phillips is optimistic about the outlook for Christians in the nascent country. Writing from Kenya, he notes that Christians "have the loudest voice" in South Sudan and are a huge reason the new country exists. "It was the sacrifices of the persecuted church and the fellowship of believers worldwide in that suffering that served as the catalyst for change in Sudan - ending Sharia law and opening the way for the formation of a new nation."
A Historic Moment
Activists say the march toward independence also has a wider significance outside Sudan. Faith McDonnell of the Institute for Religion and Democracy directs the Church Alliance for a New Sudan. "South Sudan's independence means that a people who fought against jihad and forced Islamization/Arabization have won," she told Front Page Magazine.
Chancey agrees. "This is a very historic time not only for Southern Sudan, but all of Sub-Saharan Africa," he says. "Radical Islam has not only been checked by the secession of southern Sudan, it has actually been rolled back."
Now, with a new government entering the scene in the south, religious freedom should be guaranteed. "Sharia law will no longer dominate as it has throughout most of South Sudan's history since 1956," Chancey says.
The Long Road Ahead
The brutal persecution of Christians in Sudan led Brad Phillips to found Persecution Project Foundation in 1997. Since then, he has traveled extensively throughout Sudan and other parts of Africa, chronicling religious discrimination and aiding victims of persecution.
Phillips is a long-time advocate of secession. But even in the midst of joyous celebration, he realizes that the dream of freedom hasn't entirely arrived. The South is still dependent on the North in many ways. Sudan's oil is produced primarily in the south, but Phillips points out that there is only one pipeline - and it flows through the north. "This will inevitably lead to friction between the two governments," he says.
That's not the only danger. "There are still many disputes about certain border regions, which could easily escalate into a return to war if cool heads do not prevail," he adds. Phillips foresees problems with integration, as well as infrastructure challenges arising from thousands of Sudanese Christians relocating to the south.
He feels that Darfur could be an ongoing source of destabilization for the region. "The last several months have seen much violence on the southern Darfur border-- even spilling over into southern Sudan," he says.
Sudan's Christian community has been ravaged by violence for decades, and has somehow survived. Now believers will face different, but just as numerous, new challenges.
Bill Andress cites the "extraordinary faith and hope of the Sudanese Christians" that has "kept them alive and sane during 22 years of punishing war." Sudan's civil war has claimed an estimated 2 million lives from 1983 to 2005.
"[Christians] now have an opportunity for that faith and hope to bloom and take them out of the abject poverty in which they live and have lived for so very long," Andress believes. "They have an opportunity to build a government that is rooted in democracy and guarantees rights that we take for granted, yet is tailored to the culture, needs, dreams and aspirations of the southern Sudanese people."
Liberty that Lasts
Phillips believes that the newfound liberty of South Sudan has the potential to last - provided it is built on the right foundation.
"If southern Sudan can remember how God has redeemed them out of real bondage and build on the foundation of faithfulness to God they will enjoy liberty for years to come," he predicts. "The real challenge as they emerge out of decades of war will be to rebuild a culture based on God's word that advances human dignity and recognizes the God-given rights to life, liberty and property."
It is this vision that keeps Phillips returning to Sudan, advocating for freedom, and praying for lasting peace. He hopes that Christians throughout the world will share in this burden. "Now more than ever the church needs to be praying for this new nation," he says.
Interested in helping support Sudan's Christian community? Find resources below.
Persecution Project Foundation
Church Alliance for a New Sudan
Sudan Advocacy Action Forum
Open Doors USA
Kristin Butler has visited with Christian communities throughout the Middle East and Asia. She is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to religious freedom, human rights, and philanthropy. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email [email protected]