Religious Actors in Sudan

Jude Nnorom

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.


The successful outcome of the January 9th -15th 2011 referendum on the self determination of South Sudan opened a new chapter in the history of Sudan after two decades of civil war.[1] It is now necessary to focus on sustaining the gains made, which, among others, include maintaining peaceful relations with [Northern] Sudan. Peace was first attained in 2005, when the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) was signed by the National Congress party (NCP), representing the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), representing the people of South Sudan. The CPA, signed on 9 January 2005, was facilitated by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Britain, Italy, Norway and the United States.[2] One of the stipulations of the peace agreement was that a referendum on the South's status would be held six years after the peace agreement was signed.

The outcome of the referendum reflected the yearning of the Southern Sudanese for self determination, though there are emerging issues that need to be addressed such as border demarcation, and the status of Abyei which has a lot of the oil reserves of Sudan. Other issues regard the citizenship of the Nuba Mountain people in South Kordofan State, and those of many Southern Sudanese who lived and worked for decades in Khartoum. There are also questions about the River Nile, which provides water to Egypt, the international debt of Sudan, which some may want shared between the North and South, and issues of power and tribal tensions in the South.[3] As reflected by Thabo Mbeki, the Chairperson of the African Union High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), “In the event of a secession, Northern and Southern Sudan would not be ordinary neighbors, but will be neighbors with generations of shared history – people who have attended the same universities, worked in the same institutions, danced to the same music.”[4] Thus there is a need to strengthen peacebuilding efforts in order to sustain the reconciliation between North and South Sudan and to foster nation building  in the nascent polity of South Sudan.

In this paper, I will argue that the post referendum negotiations and peacebuilding efforts should not only engage elite political actors, but also religious actors who often traverse the division between the grassroots and elite political actors. Religious actors live with ordinary people and have often provided them with services in the absence of government structures. Nevertheless, how do we involve religious actors when the dominant liberal peace paradigm is skeptical about the relevance of religion in political affairs?

Liberal peace arguments against the inclusion of religious actors in civil society operations

Liberal peace emphasizes democracy, human rights, free market economy and individual political liberty. These attributes of liberal peace are often in tension with religion as reflected by John Rawls who asked, “Can [Religious] doctrines still be compatible for the right reasons with a liberal political conception?”[5] Liberal peace perceives religion and issues relating to state governance as parallel, with the former relegated to the private realm and the latter to the public realm. Such a clear separation represents the ‘secularist paradigm’ which according to Zbigniew Brzezinski indicates that “western notions of secularization are equated with that which is ‘modern’ ‘democratic’ and ‘pluralistic’. The cultural and political arrangements in which religion is much more visible and salient… that prevail in much of the world – are equated with that which is ‘premodern’, ‘undemocratic and ‘intolerant.”[6] As such, religion and religious actors should be kept far away from political discourse. In Sudan's case, the imposition of one religion on the citizens of the state was seen as one of the primary factors that contributed to the conflict.

The liberal secularist paradigm was boosted in the Sudanese conflict according to some scholars who described the conflict as ethnic and religious. According to Amir Idris, “The civil war in the Sudan is often presented in essentially ethnic and religious terms: the 'Arab' Muslim North against 'African' Christian South”.[7] Other scholars view the use of religion, especially the Islamization efforts of General Ibrahim Aboud in 1958, as one of the main reasons for a belligerent resistance from Christians and animists in the South. According to Prisca Tanui Too, “The military Muslim Government despised Christianity and as such imposed Islam upon the Christians. In 1961, all religious gatherings for prayer, except in the Church were forbidden and from henceforth a number of missionaries on home leave were not allowed to re-enter Sudan.”[8] Religious imposition combined with making Arabic the national language evoked strong resistance from the Southern Sudanese who are mainly Christian or animist, and educated in English. Such an imposition of religion in a multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual society, compromised the relationship between North and South Sudan, and affirmed the liberal political emphasis on separation of religion and state. Religion is therefore suspect and as Madeleine Albright reflected, “Religion was not a respecter of national borders, it was above and beyond reason; it evoked the deepest passions; and historically, it was the cause of much bloodshed. Diplomats in my era were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion.”[9] Given these aspersions of religion, should religious actors be considered in matters of nation building in the post-conflict and post-referendum South Sudan? What benefits will South Sudan accrue if religious actors are engaged during this period of transition?

The need to engage religious actors in post-conflict and post-referendum South Sudan

The liberal theory about separation of religion and state seems to neglect the positive impact of religious actors in peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts. The Addis Ababa agreement of 1972, between North and South Sudan, moderated by the Ethiopian Head of State, Emperor Haile Selasie, was facilitated by the All African Council of Churches (AACC) as well as the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC). This agreement ended 17 years of war and brought reprieve to many who were displaced during the war. However, war broke out again as a result of the discovery of oil reserves in 1978, adding Islamic Shari’ a law to Sudan’s penal code, and the subsequent formation of the SPLA. Nevertheless, the Addis Ababa agreement brought negative peace, or an absence of war, to the people of Sudan.[10] After the January 2011 referendum, the Sudan Council of Churches committed itself “to immediately increase all our efforts to heal the Nation, to reconcile our people and to contribute to a peaceful and just Nation building. We urge our leaders to put down arms, to refrain from using violence to solve disputes, but to use peaceful and legal means instead.”[11] Such commitment to nation building should encourage the use of religious actors in peacebuilding efforts in South Sudan. In the following section, I will outline the reasons for inclusion of religious actors in peacebudiling initiatives in South Sudan.

1. The legitimacy of Religious Actors

Religious actors derive their legitimacy both from the doctrines of their faith as well as corresponding trust from their followers. Religious actors, according to Scott Appleby, are “people who have been formed by a religious community and who are acting with the intent to uphold, extend, or defend its values and precepts.”[12] Legitimacy refers to the “normative belief by an actor that a rule or institution ought to be obeyed.”[13] The legitimacy of religious actors in Sudan, also comes from their presence among the people during the most difficult period of the war. Religious actors were largely responsible for the provision of basic services during war. Retired Bishop Paride Taban exemplified this in his recent appeal before the referendum in which he said, “Our office is that of shepherd with the people. We live with the people. We have lived in caves, in the forest, in bomb shelters with the people.”[14] The presence of religious actors in times of violent conflict gives them legitimacy among the people of South Sudan.

The Catholic Church in Sudan established a radio station, Radio Bakitha, in Juba South Sudan which informs people in their local language and also educates them for peace. The director of Radio Bakitha, Sister Cecilia Sierra Salcido, said that, “Sudan has been undergoing 50 years of conflict, [and] this has caused many people to believe that retribution is good and that killing out of revenge is justified. It's good to challenge this worldview and invite people to understand the world in different ways."[15] By giving ordinary people a voice through radio and other mediums, religious actors can train ordinary people in peace action.

2. Religious Actors traverse the division between the elite and those on the grassroots

Information is necessary in a post conflict situation to create awareness about the decisions of leaders and explain them in a way that is not only meaningful but also elicits a positive response from people. Grievances can escalate into conflict when there is a lapse in communication in what John Paul Lederach refers to as the "Actors pyramid".[16] This pyramid places top leadership, in the case of Sudan, the SPLM/A and the NCP, at the pinnacle, different sector leaders at the middle and local grassroots leaders at the bottom. Those who have gained the trust of all three levels are essential for post-conflict peacebuilding. Religious actors play this role. The Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) and the Sudan Conference of Catholic Bishops (SCCB) were instrumental in ensuring that people on the ground understood the requirements of the CPA leading up to the referendum. They conducted workshops and held meetings with leaders on the grassroots level to ensure that people were aware of what was happening, especially with the Government of National unity (GNU). One such workshop, from the 5th to the 16th of March 2007 in Juba South Sudan, was facilitated by the SCCB and provided a forum for training leaders who in turn educated people about the CPA and its implications.[17] They were also able to communicate issues and concerns which arose from the workshop to the top leadership in order to facilitate a collective understanding of the referendum process and to avoid creating a lacuna for spoilers opposed to the peacebuilding process.

3. Religious Actors benefit their local situation through their transnational networks

The Sudan Council of Churches as well as the Sudan Conference of Catholic Bishops are parts of a global, Christian, transnational network of religious actors. These networks offer logistical assistance to member associations in different geographical areas, especially during periods of natural disasters and conflicts when state governments are dysfunctional. Daniel Philpott addressed this when he wrote, “transnational ties with allied outsiders are another way in which the Church remains differentiated from the state. For the Catholic Church, such ties are built into its very structure.”[18] These transnational networks also help direct the attention of the international community to issues that may not be highlighted in main stream media reports. Because religious actors live and interact on the local level, they too experience the effect of humanitarian crises, such as protracted war in Sudan. Thus, they are able to respond to humanitarian challenges with resources they receive from transnational networks rather than political actors who take longer to respond due to bureaucracy. Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a branch of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), provides numerous services to the people of South Sudan. They are involved in the “construction of schools and markets, creation of savings and internal lending groups, water and sanitation activities, and other civic education initiatives.”[19] The transnational network of religious actors provides CRS an opportunity to assist in post-conflict situations such as Sudan, thereby complementing the work of government institutions.


The joy following the end of protracted war in Sudan, the signing of the CPA, and the historic outcome of the referendum in South Sudan allowing it to secede from the North, should be sustained through the implementation of effective peacebuilding measures that are inclusive of civil society such as the Sudan Council of Churches and the Sudan Conference of Catholic Bishops. These peacebuilding measures should build on services that religious actors already provide thereby limiting the operational space of would-be spoilers. The proximity of religious actors to those that were most affected during the war, has made them legitimate actors in forming peacebuilding solutions.

Although the proponents of liberal peace are skeptical about involving religious actors in issues that relate to political governance, it should be noted that they did not differentiate between believers and non-believers during the war;; they provided service to all that were in need. The art of nation building requires lots of human and material resources over a long period of time to sustain development efforts, and South Sudan will not be different. It is therefore necessary to involve religious actors and other civil society organizations in the rebuilding process in order to sustain the gains made since the signing of the CPA.

[1] For a history of the Sudan conflict, see Prisca Tanui Too, “A History of the Sudan Conflict,” African Ecclesial Review 44, no.3-4 (2002): 96-124.

[2]The CPA initiated the process towards a referendum for Abyei and South Sudan. The Abyei referendum is still outstanding as it will also affect issues of border demarcation between the North and the South. For a brief report on the CPA, please see the Report of the Human Security Gateway, <>, January 2011, accessed March 14, 2011.

[3] The government of Sudan and Egypt prior to the referendum had a bilateral agreement with regard to river Nile which provides water for Egypt, and Egypt has warned that any attempt to disregard this agreement post referendum will be seen as a provocation for war. See John Ashworth, CPA Alert N0.2, IKV Pax Christi September 2010, p.10-13. <> accessed, March 23, 2011.See also Sudan Council of churches Communiqué, Time to act 10 March 2011.

[4] Thabo Mbeki, “Statement at the Launch of the Sudan Post-Referendum Negotiation,” Khartoum 10 July 2010, cited in John Ashwort, CPA Alert No.2IKV Pax Christi, September 2010, p.18.

[5] John Rawls, “the Idea of Public Reason revisited”: The University of Chicago Law Review 64: 3; (1997), 765-807.

[6] Zbigniew Brzezinski, cited in Gerard F. Powers, ‘Religion and Peacebuilding” in Powers G, Philpott D eds., Strategies of peace: Transforming conflict in a violent world (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p.317.

[7] Amir H. Idris, Conflicts and politics of identity in Sudan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p.1.

[8] Prisca Tanui Too, “A History of the Sudan Conflict,” in African Ecclesial Review 44, no.3-4 (2002): p. 108

[9] Magdalene Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty; Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (New York: Harpercollins, 2006), p. 8.

[10] Prisca Tanui Too, “A History of the Sudan Conflict,” in African Ecclesial Review 44, no.3-4 (2002): p,110-111.

[11] Sudan Council of Churches Time to Act Communique, Juba March 10/11 2011.

[12] Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation (New York: Lanham, Md.: Rowan & Littlefield, 2000), p,9.

[13] Jonathan Fox and Samuel Sandler, defined legitimacy in citing Ian Hurd in Bringing Religion into International Relations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), P,35.

[14] Sudan Bishop seeks help from International community. < October 14, 2010. Accessed March 24, 2011.

[15] Debbie Devoe, Peace hits the airwave in Sudan. <> accessed, March 24, 2011

[16] The Actors pyramid developed by John Paul Lederach refers to a unique approach to peacebuilding in communities that have experienced protracted conflicts. For more on the actors pyramid, see John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies(Washington D.C. United States Institute of peace, 1997), p.37-55.

[17] Sudan Conference of Catholic Bishops, Report on Justice and Peace TOT Workshop <> 15 March, 2007, accessed March 24, 2011.

[18] Daniel Philpott, ‘Christianity and democracy: The catholic Wave” Journal of Democracy 15, 2 (2004): 32-46.

[19] Catholic Relief Services, “Work in Sudan” <> accessed March 24, 2011.