WASHINGTON (CNS) — Saying civilian lives are at risk, Catholic leaders appealed to the international community to step up efforts to prevent full-scale war from erupting over disputed territory along the tenuous Sudan-South Sudan border.
Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Adwok Kur of Khartoum, Sudan, said in an email to Catholic News Service that tensions between Sudan and South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, could be defused if the United Nations and the African Union would mediate the differences and attempt to determine the proper border between the two countries.
Bishop Adwok, who is from the South, said civilians in the disputed area around Heglig, a small town in Southern Kordofan state on the edge of rich oil fields, are being victimized by attacks from both sides.
Dan Griffin, Sudan adviser for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, told CNS April 17 that fears are very real that a “looming disaster” exists and that the current border conflict could give rise to a new war.
“We’ve got to get the messaging out to prevent Africa’s longest-running war from returning,” he said a day before he was to travel to South Sudan to assess the situation and to check on CRS aid programs in the region.
“We need to help the church with its voice and advocacy,” Griffin said.
He called for negotiations mediated by the U.N. and African Union to end the conflict and to review the 1956 documents establishing borders among various tribes in the region.
Griffin said repeated shelling and aerial bombardments on Abyei by Sudanese forces must be investigated as well.
On Easter, Archbishop Paolino Loro Lukudo of Juba, South Sudan, called for an end to the border fighting, saying violence does not meld with God’s intention of peace for all people as promised by Christ’s resurrection. He also said clashes among rival groups in neighboring Jonglei state must cease.
“The fact that such happenings have taken place within the 40 days of Easter period does not augur well with our Christian faith,” he said.
Sudan was two distinct regions and peoples — a dry, Arab-dominated North, and a more lush, ethnically African South — when they were joined into one when it gained independence from Britain in 1956. Until a peace agreement was signed in 2005, southern rebels fought successive wars with the North, leaving millions of people dead and the region in ruins.
South Sudan seceded from Sudan after a referendum in January 2011. It officially became an independent nation July 9.
South Sudanese troops overran the Sudanese army in Heglig April 9, claiming the area for its Unity state under a 1956 agreement that the South believes set the border north of the town. Heglig had been used as a staging ground for military assaults by Sudan on South Sudan, particularly in the nearby city of Abyei, since May 2011.
Sudan maintains that Heglig is within its territory and charged the incursion by South Sudan amounts to an act of war. The Sudanese Parliament declared South Sudan an enemy April 16 in calling for a swift recapture of the disputed territory.
The U.N. and the African Union have called for South Sudan to withdraw from Heglig.
South Sudan President Salva Kiir said April 12 that he would withdraw forces from Heglig only if Sudan guaranteed that the town would not be used to launch future attacks on his country and if talks would begin on finally setting the border.
Meanwhile, the Bishops’ Conference of Sudan and South Sudan may seek to persuade the Kiir government to pursue a negotiated settlement rather than go to war, said Bishop Adwok. He said he doubted South Sudan would withdraw from Heglig unless it received guarantees that Sudan would halt its attacks.