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The death of an archdeacon

Militia attacks in South Sudan target churches and villages, and threaten 'peace' agreement


Photo by Danielle Storm

The death of an archdeacon
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Before the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the National Islamic Front regime and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), death was a daily reality in South Sudan. Khartoum's crude but efficient anti-personnel bombs-barrels stuffed with shrapnel, dropped from aging Antonov aircraft-targeted those who opposed its forced Islamization and Arabization. Khartoum also waged war through slave raids, orchestrated famine, helicopter gunship attacks, scorched earth campaigns, displacement of people, and the killing of church leaders.

Now, despite the peace agreement, the regime's long-term agenda for South Sudan apparently has not changed. Reports claim that Khartoum recruits and arms proxy militias to destabilize the South, killing civilians and scattering its people once again. At the same time, the Islamist regime uses money and promises of power to divide Southerners against each other. In this way Khartoum may demonstrate that the South, scheduled for a secession referendum in 2011, cannot govern itself.

On Aug. 29 a militia of Lou Nuer killed 43 people and wounded 62 in Wernyol, a Dinka town. Among the dead was Episcopal Church of Sudan archdeacon Joseph Mabior Garang, killed while officiating at a morning prayer service.

Most likely, the militia (and its sponsors) targeted Mabior because he was a prominent, beloved leader in the community. He had recently become archbishop of Twic East diocese, newly formed to accommodate the fast-growing church in Bor county, which is part of Jonglei state in South Sudan.

While the Obama administration has focused on legendary atrocities in Darfur, the western region of Sudan, the UN reports that the rate of violent deaths in South Sudan now surpasses that in Darfur. Lise Grande, UN Deputy Resident Coordinator in Southern Sudan, recently said more than 2,000 people had died and 250,000 had been displaced by inter-ethnic violence across the region.

Witnesses report that Mabior was shot twice in the legs and that his attackers may have also used a military knife called a "sonki." After the first shots, 30 men and women from the church and town, including tribal chiefs, soldiers, a university student and other youth leaders, and several of the town's oral historians, covered Mabior with their own bodies. All 30 gave their lives in their effort to protect him. Mabior died two hours later.

In the aftermath of Mabior's death the Episcopal Church of Sudan is grieving: "Everyone in the diocese of Bor and the diocese of Twic East is painfully shocked and devastated at losing Joseph. Archdeacon Mabior was a father to many and a mentor to many of us who are clergy," said John Chol Daau, a priest of Bor diocese currently studying at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., and a former Lost Boy of Sudan who worked closely with Mabior.

After Mabior's death, Daau phoned Nathaniel Garang, the bishop of Bor. "Son, I lost a strong man, a follower of the living Christ who never hesitated to preach the gospel of Christ to our people," Garang said as he wept. "He was like my frontline captain as he and I preached the gospel . . . a great intercessor . . . a pastor and a leader . . . full of patience and love . . . very humble. . . . He would always want to care and serve in any circumstance."

Wernyol is home to other Sudanese in the United States. James Kuer Garang Manyok, another of the famous Lost Boys orphaned during Sudan's civil war, was Mabior's cousin and now lives in Virginia. Kuer said that although his parents were killed in the war he still had hope because "Rev. Joseph, the man of God, was still alive. And now he is gone."

He added, "all those who were murdered during that brutal attack are blood relatives to me." He had met almost all of the victims when he returned for the first time in 22 years to Wernyol in the spring of 2009. "I don't know what to say or do," he said sadly.

A number of Americans met Mabior this past June when he hosted a short-term mission team from St. Philip's Anglican Church of Moon Township, Pa. The team leader, Anglican clergywoman Elaine Storm, said, "Archdeacon Joseph was a man that passionately loved Jesus and passionately loved God's people." In a filmed interview conducted by missions team member Kathy VanDusen, Mabior thanks the Lord for protecting his life "up to now," and tells how he came to faith in Christ and began to raise churches under the trees in war-torn South Sudan.

In a Sept. 1 appeal, Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul (Episcopal Church of Sudan) joined SPLM officials pointing out that the tribal groups comprising the militias had been cattle raiders. But these militia are attacking administrative headquarters and towns where no cattle are held. Deng Bul said, "In the view of the church, this was not a tribal conflict as commonly reported, but a deliberately organized attack on civilians by those that are against the peace in Southern Sudan."

Storm holds the same view. She, her sister Danielle, and her father Nick were all part of the Anglican mission team. She wrote to President Barack Obama and other government leaders about Mabior's death, urging more U.S. action to protect South Sudanese. A student at Eastern University, Storm wrote of Mabior, "He was a kind and gentle man and has left a family and a community of people who relied on him." With her letter she included a copy of a photograph taken by her father of Mabior playfully presenting "availability" beads, the Dinka traditional necklaces worn by girls of marriageable age, to her and Danielle. He smiles broadly, full of life, as he drapes the beads around their necks. "People who I now know and love are dying," Storm told Obama.

"It appears that the northern government is violating the comprehensive peace agreement," said Storm. "It appears that the government of South Sudan needs international assistance. Who is keeping northern Sudan in check?"

No one, perhaps. In a more recent attack, on Sept. 19, the same militia of heavily armed Lou Nuer waged an early dawn attack on the local government center of Duk-Padiet, also in Bor county. The militia overcame local youths and organized forces trying to defend the area and ambushed several places at once, according to South Sudan military spokesman Major General Kuol Diem Kuol. This attack left 80 dead and 46 wounded.

But Lou Nuer have been victims, as well. In an August attack on Akobo in Jonglei, Murle tribesmen killed 185 Lou Nuer-mostly women and children. Also in August, northern Ugandan rebels, the LRA, attacked Ezo Town in Western Equatoria. They killed three people, including an Episcopal lay reader, and took 10 children from the Ezo Episcopal Church. In each attack, property was destroyed, hundreds were wounded, and 250,000 have been displaced again from their homes. In each attack, locals report, militias were well-armed with new automatic weapons, dressed in professional uniforms, and were well-trained and organized.

President Obama's Sudan Special Envoy, Major General Scott Gration, has expressed willingness to help renegotiate terms of the CPA at Khartoum's request. But a big question for the administration is whether Khartoum can renegotiate in good faith. At a July hearing on Capitol Hill, SPLM Secretary General Pagan Amum Okiech warned that the Khartoum regime had distributed 79,000 AK-47s to militias throughout Sudan. At the same time, the government of South Sudan is under pressure from the UN, U.S. Agency for International Development, and others to collect guns from civilians in South Sudan. The imbalance leaves Southern villages vulnerable to war, not peace.

-Faith J.H. McDonnell is the Director of Religious Liberty Programs at the Institute on Religion and Democracy

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