The government and the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army have been locked in armed conflict since 1983, the year in which then President Gaafar Nimeiry established Islamic law. Forced Islamization was promoted in 1989 among the peoples of the south, the majority of whom are Christians or animists.
In this interview with Misna, Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro of Juba laments the absence of a culture of peace and deplores "fanatic Islam which uses the south as a way of access to Black Africa."
Q: This war started in 1983. In the past weeks the signing of a peace accord appeared near in Kenya, but then all was once again postponed. Why don't the Khartoum government and the rebels of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army [SPLA] come to an accord?
Archbishop Lukudu: Both sides have reiterated their will to reach an accord, but the actual intent of real peace is missing, both on the side of the authorities and that of the rebels.
Our nation has a complex history, which demonstrates the clear differences between north and south, between the Muslim, Arab part of Sudan and predominantly Christian, African part. But this cannot be called a religious war; it would be too reductive.
It is a more global war, with also religious, political, economic and cultural causes, in addition to the desire of independence of the south. This separation between the two zones dates back to the presence of the British, who wanted to distinguish the Arabic north from the African south.
Now we must look ahead. Today there is talk of a "new Sudan"; it is time to confront the injustices that this division provoked over the years. Sudan has reached a turning point in its history, after this long conflict. However, the population of southern Sudan wants to maintain its identity: I was born a black African and this is who I want to remain among my people.
Q: Why? Is there, perhaps, a risk of a forced conversion of Christians?
Archbishop Lukudu: The penetration of Islam in Africa is not a novelty, nor does it necessarily represent a problem. The point is: with what means? And then: which Islam?
The regime of Khartoum wears Islam at its own whim like a vest, but changing the characteristics. Many Muslims perceive this and express their disappointment with the government of President Omar al-Beshir. Even a large number of imams do not share the views of the men of the regime, who gave this Islam a face of corruption and power struggle.
The Arab world is well aware that not all Muslims are like this. Undoubtedly, there are also people in the government who understand this aspect perfectly. But they are a minority, and fanaticism seems to prevail, always pushing further south.
Q: What are the consequences of all this?
Archbishop Lukudu: An example is sufficient: the concept of "human rights." When the Church or local organizations address this issue, Khartoum thinks the issue is "Christian" rights, born in Europe or in the United States.
They do not think that "human rights" include everyone, indistinctly, and, therefore do not apply them. This is the fanatical Islam that preoccupies us and that wants to pass from southern Sudan, as a way of access, to the rest of Africa.
Q: Is southern Sudan, aside from being the frontier of "Black Africa," also rich in "black gold." What part does oil have in this conflict?
Archbishop Lukudu: It is a relatively recent factor. The oilfields are in the south and therefore should be controlled by that part of Sudan.
As a religious leader, however, I want to say that if oil is a precious good, then it should be utilized to elevate the quality of life of all Sudanese and lift us from the misery afflicting us for years. We all contributed to devastating this land. Now is the time that we all participate in rebuilding it.
Q: On several occasions you have mentioned "the people." But does a real national identity exist in Sudan, where in six years a referendum will be held that could establish the independence of the south?
Archbishop Lukudu: As chairman of the Sudan bishops' conference, which is organized in two groups based on the territorial control of the dioceses under the government or the rebels, I say we are for mankind -- and mankind in Sudan is desperate. This is the perception that unites us.
Together with all the bishops of the nation, I am trying to create the conditions to live this moment of history well. The people of the north and south of Sudan must have the possibility to freely choose their own future.
Q: In what way?
Archbishop Lukudu: At present, there is no freedom of expression. No one can freely express their opinion, both in Khartoum and the south. The first objective is to create an autonomous public opinion. This primary and indispensable freedom alone will guarantee the formation of a conscience of the people.
Q: Today there is not only the impossibility of freely expressing an opinion in your nation. A large part of the population is kept in the dark on matters that regard it directly: the peace talks under way in Kenya.
Archbishop Lukudu: The people are not kept informed. In the north they receive manipulated news, in the south they have none. The Sudanese have the sense that this peace process will merely bring an accord between two dictators: President al-Beshir, on one side, and the SPLA leader John Garang, on the other.
Q: And "the people"?
Archbishop Lukudu: They are completely excluded.
Q: And the Church?
Archbishop Lukudu: The Church calls for dialogue, a return to talking, and that this really be a peace of "the people."
The Sudanese are the only real owners of this peace. The rebels must inform the population of the south of what is occurring in the peace talks. But Garang instead excludes both the people and politicians of southern Sudan.
But I say: Careful! There is risk of an internal front opening in the south, because there are groups of militias combating for the government, which the SPLA leader does not take into consideration.
In the past months the so-called south-south dialogue failed; it was an effort to find a mutual stand between the different components of southern Sudan. The Church had encouraged the initiative and now, as bishops, we see the risk of a division that could unleash an armed confrontation on a tribal level: Garang is a Dinka and is not well accepted by all the other components.
Q: In a few days the Pope will proclaim Blessed Daniele Comboni a saint; [he] dedicated his entire existence to "saving Africa with Africa." Will 2003 be the year of the miracle of peace in Sudan?
Archbishop Lukudu: The entire life of the Comboni was a miracle. His dream was to create an African Church; this, in the third millennium, is taking shape.
I would like to emphasize that the beneficiary of the miracle of the Comboni was a Muslim. This is a sign of God and gives strength to us Sudanese, the Church of our nation, the Combonis and the Pope, to hope that peace is really possible.