Revised & Updated: Wed., Dec. 25:
A top UN official in South Sudan fears that thousands of South Sudanese may have died since the Sunday, Dec. 15, surge of political and ethnic violence. Earlier on Christmas eve, Toby Lanzer, one of the UN's top humanitarian officials in South Sudan, told the BBC:
"I think it's undeniable at this stage that there must have been thousands of people who have lost their lives. When I've looked at the hospitals in key towns and I've looked at the hospitals in the capital itself, the range of injuries, this is no longer a situation where we can merely say it's hundreds of people who've lost their lives." The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said: "There is a palpable fear among civilians of both Dinka and Nuer backgrounds that they will be killed on the basis of their ethnicity."
Initial reports from the UN Human Rights office that officials have discovered mass graves of people killed have proven to be inaccurate. The most recent information is that a grave with 34 bodies was found. On Christmas Eve, the UN Security Coucil voted to double the size of the UN Mission (UNMISS) to a force of 12,500 soldiers and 1,300 police officers. (South Sudan is about the size of Texas, but with very little infrastructure.)
One week ago, South Sudan's religious leaders demanded (see below) an end to violence and offered their assistance in negotiating a peaceful settlement to the crisis. Then on Dec. 21, influential Christian leaders from Europe made a similar appeal. According to the Anglican Communion News service:
The Archbishop of Canterbury tonight joined an appeal to leaders in South Sudan to lay down their weapons and cooperate in seeking peace through dialogue and negotiation. The joint statement, signed by Archbishop Justin; Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; and Lorna Hood, Moderator of the Church of Scotland, offered a prayer that all in South Sudan become "instruments of peace." On behalf of our churches we appeal to the leaders in South Sudan to lay down their weapons and co-operate in seeking peace through dialogue and negotiation.
Samaritan's Purse, based in Boone, North Carolina, has one of the largest faith-based operations in South Sudan among American Christian missions groups. The group said it evacuated more than 70 expatriate employees by Dec. 21 and that 800 Sudanese would seek to maintain services to 500,000 people enrolled in its programs.
According to other reports, the US Marines may be deployed to evacuate Americans in the country, which gained independence in 2011.
In the summer of 2013, the Institute on Religion and Democracy worked to defuse lingering tensions in South Sudan. At the time, Anglican Archbishop of Sudan and South Sudan Daniel Deng Bul wrote in a public statement:
"The enemies of South Sudan used divide and rule tactics, setting tribe against tribe, brother against brother, and sister against sister. The time has now come to rediscover our nationalism, putting aside these artificially created divisions."
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Update: Wednesday, Dec. 18
As many as 500 people have died in South Sudan since Sunday, according to media reports. The government is blaming soldiers loyal to Riek Machar, the sacked deputy of President Salva Kiir.
But Machar, speaking to the BBC, has denied the accusation that he attempted a coup. Reports today indicate that the violence has declined significantly as government forces have reasserted control over the nation, split from Sudan in 2011.
Eight top religious leaders with the South Sudan Council of Churches on Tuesday, issued a public letter, offering to mediate any disputes between Kiir and Machar, who was dismissed this past July. The tribal overtones are very strong.
The leaders said:
There is a political problem between leaders within the SPLM. This should not be turned into an ethnic problem. Sadly, on the ground it is developing into tribalism. This must be defused urgently before it spreads. Reconciliation is needed between the political leaders. Violence is not an acceptable way of resolving disputes. This must be done in a peaceful and civilised manner. Reconciliation is at the heart of the Church's ministry, a key Gospel value, and so we offer ourselves as mediators.
Other recent CT articles on South Sudan:
Tues., Dec. 17
After a failed coup attempt in South Sudan on Sunday night, a top Christian leader from East Africa is calling for a "Mandela moment" in which President Salva Kiir and former deputy Riek Machar would break off hostilities and resolve their differences peacefully.
Speaking from Geneva where she was at the WCC headquarters for weekend meetings and to attend a Monday morning Mandela memorial, Dr. Agnes Abuom, a Kenyan, said, "This is really a Mandela moment" for South Sudan. "Just when we have laid Mandela to rest and we are celebrating his life of forgiveness and reconciliation, of justice, of freedom, of the capacity to be content and to be inclusive: this is really a lesson for South Sudan", she said.
Tuesday morning, there were reports of extensive gunfire in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and thousands of people were fleeing the city. The government of South Sudan put in place a dusk-to-dawn curfew to reduce the risk of further violence. Initial reports say that as many as 26 people have been killed.
Today, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) reports that 16,000 people have sought refuge in the main UN compound, according to Toby Lanzer, assistant secretary general of the United Nations, via Twitter (@tobylanzer). This morning, Hilde F. Johnson, UN special representative in Juba, indicated ethnic tensions were a factor in the attempted coup.
"At a time when unity among South Sudanese is more needed than ever, I call on the leaders of this new country and all political factions and parties, as well as community leaders to refrain from any action that fuels ethnic tensions and exacerbates violence."
Tensions between the dominant Dinka tribe and other groups, such as the Nuer, have soured the political climate as South Sudan has struggled to run the new nation of 11 million. One of South Sudan's top Christian leaders is Anglican Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, primate of Sudan. He has been a steady advocate for ethnic reconciliation. Kiir named the archbishop as chairman of the national committee on reconciliation. In July, Archbishop Deng issued a statement calling for forgiveness. He wrote that extending forgiveness was a "bitter pill" that South Sudanese need to swallow.
"We have to swallow our pride for the sake of the survival of our young nation. The pride of tribe, of clan, of class, of creed, of political party, and of personal ambition must not obscure the focus on the future of our nation. We cannot have fellowship without forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. We need to exercise mercy towards each other."