|Staff helps woman vote in al-Jereif, a Khartoum suburb, on January 14, 2011. |
Photo Credit: Associated Press
Sudan's referendum on independence kicked off on Jan. 9 with reports of peaceful voting in most parts of the country but with news that violence in the disputed Abyei region had erupted, claiming lives and injuring people after militia attacked a polling station.
Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal Church of Sudan joined his Roman Catholic counterpart, Archbishop Paulino Lukudu, and other religious leaders as they cast their ballots at 4 p.m. on Jan. 9 at the Hai Jalaba Junior School polling station in Juba, capital city of southern Sudan.
Accompanying the archbishops was a delegation from the All Africa Conference of Churches, which had traveled to Juba as an ecumenical body of referendum observers, according to a Rebecca Coleman, international coordinator in Deng's office.
"On arrival, and with big smiles and waves, the archbishops greeted the crowd of fellow Sudanese citizens who had also turned up to vote," Coleman said, in an e-mail sent to Episcopal News Service. "They proceeded inside the station and after a brief explanation of the process from the polling station officials, they finally voted."
"We have been waiting 55 years for this day. This is the day, this is our time," Deng said, according to Coleman, adding that all Sudanese had now proved to the world that they could reach this day peacefully.
Meanwhile, more than 40 deaths were reported in Abyei following violent clashes between the Misseriya Arab tribe of the north and Ngok Dinka of the south. Abyei is a border region which is holding a separate referendum to determine whether it will belong to the north or the south.
"It is very sad news about Abyei," Bishop Joseph Garang of the Diocese of Renk, which lies on the border between the north and south, told ENS during a Jan. 10 telephone from his home. "The militia arrived well-prepared and attacked a polling center. We are all trying to be peaceful."
In Renk, Garang said the referendum is "going very well" and being conducted peacefully. "It's a celebratory time for everybody," he told ENS, adding that the vast majority of people had already cast their ballots and that he expected voting would conclude in the next day or two. The official final day for voting is Jan. 15.
But Garang's main message was that he believes in the power of prayer. "Everything now is in the control of God. If it were not, there would be much more violence," he said. "God is so good always and people are praying, which is why things are going so smoothly. I believe that God has answered our prayers that the referendum goes forward on time. Now we continue to pray that the voting can finish peacefully."
The referendum is a main provision in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought an end to a 21-year civil war that claimed 2 million lives and displaced many more.
The results of the referendum are expected to be announced by Jan. 25 and should the south vote to secede from the north a transitional period will commence, with the official start of a new nation scheduled for July 9.
Millions of refugees are expected to return to the south from the north and the Diocese of Renk is in a strategic position to welcome them. Garang said that Renk's Christians were rejoicing that UNICEF had delivered food and medicine over the weekend to ensure that the region was prepared for the mass migration. He urged ongoing prayers from the international community.
Back in Juba, Episcopal Church missionary Robin Denney explained that the thousands of people who lined up outside polling stations were patient and joyful. "People congratulated each other as they voted," she said in a Jan. 9 e-mail to ENS. "There was a general feeling of solemnity in the air, a state of awe at the historic event we were witnessing and participating in. It is hard to describe the intensity of the overarching feeling of joy and pride that pervaded Juba today."
Among the international observers in Juba were former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn. "Jimmy Carter greeted the archbishops, and all the people gathered there," Denney said. "He thanked the other observers for their presence, and encouraged the voters with confident words and a glowing smile. He spent a few minutes speaking with the archbishops about their experience of the vote, and telling them about his own commitment as a Christian."
"We praise God for this joyful peaceful day, and we continue to pray for peace in all corners of Sudan as these events unfold," Denney added.
Related reading: Southern Sudan to Take a Biblical Name?; Prayer Needed in the Midst of Sudan Vote; Who Were the Kushites?