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South Sudan Referendum Holds Key to Freedom

CHICAGO, IL (December 14, 2010) – “Many people ask us, ‘Why do you want to separate?’ ” Nyajuok (Sunday) Chuol, a South Sudanese student at North Park University, told a gathering on Saturday in advance of a historic referendum. “The reason is one word – freedom.”

Members of the rapidly growing Evangelical Covenant Church of South Sudan (ECCS) desperately are seeking that freedom, said James Tang, a Sudanese refugee and an Evangelical Covenant Church missionary to Sudan. He also is father of Chuol, one of the students who organized the event. Other speakers included South Sudanese government officials as well as local leaders.

The referendum, scheduled for early January for refugees in the U.S., would pave the way for South Sudan’s independence from the northern part of the African nation. South Sudan is a semi-autonomous government of Sudan.

Ezekiel Gatkuoth, the South Sudan ambassador to the United States, told the gathering that freedom means something different for the people in his country. “Their freedom is just to be safe, to live in a home, and to wake up not afraid.”

The referendum represents the final implementation of a peace accord signed in 2005 that ended decades of civil war in which two million south Sudanese died and made refugees of millions more.

Tang referred the north’s attacks upon the south as attempted genocide and showed slides of the carnage. He added that atrocities against the south had continued and included killing of vital livestock.

Covenant World Relief has continued to provide supplies and food to the ECCS, which has freely distributed them to members of their communities according to need, regardless of church affiliation.

Assistance is being sent to residents of one village who had been living in exile in Ethiopia, but who returned to their village of Chuil at the encouragement of the United Nations and to participate in the vote. The international organization provided no food, however.

The violence is fueled by conflict between peoples of differing culture, language, and religion. The north is predominantly Arabic and Islamic in its faith tradition, whereas the south includes Sudanese from a variety of backgrounds and is primarily Christian in its faith tradition. The civil war started after President al-Bashir and his predecessors sought to impose a strict form of Sharia law.

Economics also have played a significant role in fueling the conflict. Eighty-five percent of Sudan’s rich oil reserves are located in the south and serve as the primary source of income for the nation.

For that reason, the referendum may not be the last word. “The north is not going to be happy about seeing us go,” Gatkuoth said. He encouraged attendees to Saturday’s gathering to encourage their representatives to push for continued pressure by the United States government to force the north to abide by the vote.

He said both sides will have to work together for everyone’s benefit. He noted that the oil pipelines must flow through the north so the oil can be exported. The north also has the funds to develop the fields.

The agreement calls for oil revenue to be shared more equally between the north and south. Currently, the north takes nearly all of the revenue.

Attendees to Saturday’s gathering included two dozen South Sudanese who have found refuge in the United States. The speakers repeatedly encouraged them to vote.

An offering was taken to help fund the transportation of Sudanese to the voting centers for the election that have been set up in several cities across the United States.

Editor’s note: The top photo shows people of Chuil waving goodbye to Covenant missionary Pete Ekstrand. The lower photo was taken during the gathering by student photographer Tyler Carlson, who is a member of Harbert Community Covenant Church in Three Oaks, Michigan.

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