Religious Differences Seen as Biggest Challenge to Peace in Sudan

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Religious differences between Muslims and Christians will be by far the greatest challenge facing Sudan as it enters a post-conflict transitional phase, in the view of delegates to a religious organization meeting here.

The level at which religious differences between the polarized communities are managed will significantly define the nation's future, experts said.

A top religious leader said the international community should help Sudan manage those differences, to strengthen the relative peace now prevailing in the southern part of the war-ravaged country.

The Rev. Mvume Dandala, secretary-general of the All Africa Council of Churches (AACC), said "Islamization" and "Arabization" were key factors in the Sudan civil war.

Help from the international community, and especially from religious and civil society groups, would therefore be needed to help the Sudanese overcome religious differences.

"I expect more dynamic engagement from the church in helping achieve this goal," he said.

Dandala spoke to on the sidelines of a meeting in Nairobi of the Sudan Ecumenical Forum.

He said the church in Africa must realize that it has a moral responsibility to reduce the high level of "suspicion" among the Sudanese people. "Any complacency and lack of church participation may derail the peace process."

It was also up to the church, Dandala added, to help ensure that there was no risk of Sudan returning to civil war, noting that international intervention once conflict erupts always comes too late to save lives.

An estimated two million people have died in the two-decade long civil war and accompanying famine.

The conflict has pitted the Arab Muslim North against the predominantly Christian and animist black African people of the southern Sudan, who want religious, political and economic autonomy from the Islamist regime in Khartoum.

The government and the main rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), last month signed a deal designed to halt the civil war.

A comprehensive peace agreement due to be signed soon will allow for the formation of a six-year transition government, pending a referendum to determine whether or not the south will break away to form its own sovereign state.

Progress in signing that comprehensive agreement is being hindered by another conflict, in Dafur in western Sudan. Rebels there want political and economic autonomy and are fighting against the government and government-backed militias.

The African Union hopes a recent decision to send peacekeeping troops there could bring calm.

Dandala highlighted what he said was one of the grim consequences of religious differences in Sudan - the problem of slavery. Northern Arabs have financed militias who have carried out raids, abducting mostly women and children from the south to be used as slaves and concubines for their northern masters.

Several of the delegates attending the Nairobi forum agreed that religious differences was the key issue and would impact significantly on whether Sudan remains a unitary state beyond the transitional period.

Their view tallies with that of the United States Institute of Peace, which says that although the north has historically perceived Sudan as a single country composed of one people, its unification policies are, however, aimed at "Arabizing" and "Islamizing" the whole nation.

Such policies, the institute said in recent findings, had generated antagonism among the southern population whose indigenous cultural values combined with Christianity to create a common identity, in opposition to northern attitudes and policies.

Because of this government disregard, "conflict and civil war has remained endemic," said the institute, a non-partisan institution funded by Congress.

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