At the Lausanne Movement's Cape Town 2010 congress, Christianity Today editor in chief David Neff met with Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, and 28 representatives of Christian churches in Sudan—some from the traditionally Muslim North and most from the Christian and animist South. Tunnicliffe and Neff listened to the Sudanese delegates' worries about what might happen if their upcoming referendum on independence for southern Sudan resulted in a vote for secession. They also heard the Sudanese plead for prayers and request resources to help them resettle a potential flood of displaced persons.

After they returned from South Africa, Neff asked Tunnicliffe to explain to CT readers the nature of the upcoming vote and the reasons for Christians around the globe to engage in prayer for this election.

You recently met with church and government leaders in Sudan. What happened at that meeting?

This meeting took place in Juba between the heads of churches for the entirety of Sudan—both northern and southern church leaders, heads of all the denominations—and with the leaders of the southern Sudan government, including the president and vice-president and members of cabinet. During those three days, they discussed the role of the church in the upcoming referendum and how the church might be involved in making sure that the referendum was fair and free of violence.

Why is this referendum, scheduled for January 9, so important?

Sudan has experienced civil war for the last 50 years with just a few breaks. When the civil war ended five years ago, the agreement was that there would be a vote, a referendum held by the south Sudanese to determine whether they should stay as part of Sudan or become a separate country. That was a key part of the peace agreement, so it's really important that the people of southern Sudan have the freedom to make that choice.

What are the threats right now? Is there even talk of not holding the referendum?

There are a whole series of concerns. One is the shortness of the time frame of the January 9 referendum, getting everyone registered to vote within southern Sudan. The people who are allowed to vote also include southern Sudanese people living in the North. There are probably one-and-a-half million people there. In addition, there is the southern Sudanese diaspora around the world. How to register all those people in time?

The northern government is showing strong indications that they don't want the vote to take place because of the potential impact it would have for them.

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The northern Sudanese government would favor the status quo?

I believe so. Ministers in the federal government, who are northern Sudanese, have said that if the southerners were to vote in favor of secession then those southerners living in the North would lose government and social benefits. They would not be able to go to a hospital. There would be issues around education. Perhaps they would lose their citizenship. The veiled and not-so-veiled threats cause real concern.

What is the case for making south Sudan independent of the North? Why will many southern Sudanese vote for that?

As an international organization, the World Evangelical Alliance doesn't have a specific opinion on whether the South should vote for secession or for unity. The problem is this: since the civil war ended five years ago, there has been very little investment by the overall national government in the South. Separation would give the southern Sudanese greater control over their own development and destiny.

The historic conflict derives in part from the fact that the North is predominantly Islamic, and the South, predominantly Christian and animist. With the growing pressure in the North to introduce Shari'ah law, southerners say that part of the reason for secession is to protect their human rights and their religious freedom.

It's about development. It's about protecting human rights. They say that after 50 years of conflict, this is probably the best solution for resolving it. If the parties haven't been able to resolve it in the last 50 years, what are they going to do in another 50 years? But there are lots of challenges around secession. For example, there are massive oil reserves in the South with a pipeline that goes only to the North. Who would control that if they were to vote for secession?

We frequently hear that the North is mainly Muslim, but there are Christians in the north of Sudan too. What is their status?

That is to be determined. Our concern for northerners who are Christian—whatever the outcome of the referendum—is that their human rights and religious liberty would not be limited, that they would be protected, and that they would be able to live out their faith with freedom of expression.

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We've heard talk that the southerners who were displaced to the North would love to migrate back to their homes in the South. What are the obstacles to that?

One obstacle is purely economic. How do they afford to move back? In addition, they've been told that when they leave the North, they will have to give up their homes and all of their possessions—everything. So they would be coming back to the South as refugees. The South is the least developed part of the country, having very minimal infrastructure, including healthcare, education, or other social services.

If people migrate by the hundreds of thousands to a place that already has very little development, the additional pressure on the infrastructure there is pretty significant. So they may go to other surrounding countries as well—Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt. There is potential for destabilizing the entire region. If, after the election, there were 1.5 million people on the move, would there be a safety zone, a corridor through which they could actually leave? Where will they leave to? It will impact whatever country they go to. Even if the referendum is free, fair, and nonviolent, the movement of people will be massive, and the potential for destabilization in the whole region is pretty significant.

Is resettling that one-and-a-half million people an effort in which Christians from North America and other parts of the developed world can help through NGOs?

Absolutely. No matter what the outcomes of the referendum, it's really important for the global Christian community to step up and be involved in caring for refugees and building the infrastructure of southern Sudan. There's a genuine opportunity for the church to make a difference in the lives of people.

What are some of the main Christian agencies that are active in that region that North Americans might want to help?

World Vision, World Relief, Samaritan's Purse. There are scores of organizations, including some denominational structures involved. And it's not just organizations working in Sudan. Remember the surrounding countries like Uganda or Ethiopia. Groups like Compassion are not working in Sudan, but they're working in the surrounding countries that will be impacted as refugees flow across those borders.

What are some of the things the WEA is going to do in order to help insure a fair and free election and also to help make things safe for Christians in Sudan?

The WEA is not a relief and development organization. We're not a mission agency board. We are a global voice, having a constituency of 420 million Christians around the world. We're trying to leverage that voice around this issue. We're asking our national alliances around the world to speak to their governments about the situation in Sudan to make sure those governments are paying attention to the situation in southern Sudan and doing all they can to make sure the referendum takes place and that the referendum's results will be accepted.

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We've also been asked by both the southern Sudanese government and the churches in the entire country to help recruit observers and monitors for the referendum. The church leaders and the government have said it's really important that people actually come under the WEA brand, as it were, because to see the church involved in monitoring will raise the acceptance of the referendum in Sudan and in the international community.

How do people become observers or monitors?

They have to go through an application process, and we then submit the names to the Sudanese electoral commission so they can be officially accepted.

What's the next thing that you will be doing?

Right now we're working on a global day of prayer for Sudan. We're calling that prayer campaign "Peace for Sudan." It will take place on December 5.

We're asking Christians around the world to commit that day. From that point it will be just over a month before the referendum takes place. During the Lausanne meetings in Cape Town, we met with all the Sudanese leaders. We asked them, What is the best way we can help? Their immediate response was that the first thing we should do—above everything else—is pray, pray, pray. We are honoring their request because we also believe it is crucial that Christians pray for this serious situation in Sudan.

What materials might churches be able to find to help them guide prayer on December 5?

We're building a website about Sudan that will be accessed through the World Evangelical Alliance website. They can find a video clip, photographs, prayer points, and information about what various other organizations are doing—SIM [the former Sudan Interior Mission], World Relief, World Vision.

What do you want to be doing after the referendum?

The World Evangelical Alliance will be calling a December meeting in Nairobi of as many stakeholders as possible from the evangelical community around the world, as well as leaders from within Sudan and external players, to see how efforts can be coordinated. Many agencies are already thinking about contingency plans. Can we collectively begin to put those plans together and see if there's some synergy, so that our combined resources can have a greater impact? We see our role as coordination, building collaboration between the players.

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Also, after the referendum there will be large challenges in peace building and reconciliation. Even within the South there's intertribal conflict. There has also been the problem of insurgencies coming in from the Lord's Liberation Army in Uganda. They are regularly killing people. We're trying to invest in building a society where reconciliation takes place.

Related Elsewhere:

Earlier articles on Sudan include a look at the upcoming referendum and a 2009 report on the violence faced by Christians in southern Sudan.

Both sides in the referendum are already claiming voter intimidation.

The WEA and World Council of Churches issued similar statements on the upcoming referendum.