Episcopacy denounces violence against civilians
United together from February 21 to 23, the Catholics bishops of South Sudan resolutely denounced the violence perpetrated against civilians, as “war crimes” inflicted by both the opposition and the government who are accused of killing, raping, burning, beating, looting, harassing and detaining civilians, even keeping entire villages from harvesting their crops resulting in some regions facing famine. Aid to the Church in Need has obtained a copy of this declaration; here are some of the highlights.
“We, the Catholic Bishops of South Sudan, have frequently written pastoral messages urging change in our nation, but it seems they have had little effect,” they write in their address with a title taken from the prophet Isaiah, also quoted by the evangelists Matthew and Mark, “A Voice Cries in the Wilderness.”
“Our country is not at peace. People live in fear. The civil war, which we have frequently described as having no moral justification whatsoever, continues. Despite our calls to all parties, factions and individuals to STOP THE WAR*, nevertheless killing, raping, looting, displacement, attacks on churches and destruction of property continue all over the country,” they write.
The bishops also remind us that the people cannot go to do their harvest because they fear the armed forces, whether they are from the government or the opposition. “Some towns have become “ghost towns,” they write. “While the authorities may claim that they are free to return to their homes, in practice they fear to do so. In places, the destruction has been described to us as “scorched earth,” they tell us. “All of this is a form of ‘collective punishment,’ which is outlawed as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.”
Undermining faith in the Church
The South Sudan Episcopacy give us an example of these crimes with the story of “Sister Veronica, a doctor who was gunned down by soldiers while driving a clearly-marked ambulance on 16th May 2016. Her killers were arrested, but we have heard no more and we await justice.”
Otherwise, the bishops remained “concerned” that “some elements within the government appear to be suspicious of the Church. In some areas, the Church has been able to mediate local peace deals,” but according to the bishops, “easily undermined if government officials are removed and replaced with hardliners who do not welcome Church efforts for peace. Priests, sisters and other personnel have been harassed. Some of the programmes on our radio network have been removed. Churches have been burned down,” say the bishops.
On Valentine’s Day, security officers tempted to close their Catholic bookstores. “They harassed our personnel and confiscated several books.” The ecumenical church leaders’ delegation which visited Pope Francis in Rome and Archbishop Justin Welby in London has been trying,” in vain, they say “to obtain a meeting with President Salva Kiir since December 2016.”
The bishops recall that they are not against anyone, “but AGAINST* evil – violence, killing, rape, torture, looting, corruption, arbitrary detention, tribalism, discrimination, oppression – regardless of where they are and who is practising them. We are ready,” they write, “to dialogue with and between the government and the opposition at any time.”
They conclude by addressing particularly the faithful while affirming: “We will continue to be “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness”. We wish to give you hope that you are not abandoned and that we are working to resolve the situation at many different levels.
Finally, with great joy, we wish to inform you that the Holy Father Pope Francis hopes to visit South Sudan later this year. The Holy Father is deeply concerned about the sufferings of the people of South Sudan.”
* Capitalized in the original letter.