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The Church and the Referendum

The Church in Southern Sudan has a longstanding relationship with the SPLA/M and has played a prominent role in the referendum process. Critics argue that it has been too political:

Christianity is the dominant religion in Southern Sudan.
© Ochan Hannington

Internallly Displaced blog: Does Bible fortell Sudanese secession?

"Let my people go!", was Moses' powerful message to the Pharaoh of Egypt, according to the Bible, accompanied with threats of devastating plagues sent by God. For Bishop Arikanjelo Wani Lemi of the evangelical Africa Inland Church (AIC) in Yei, Central Equatoria State, these words also refer to Southern Sudan's struggle for independence, and provided inspiration for the Church to get involved. Speaking to SUDANVOTES Arikanjelo said the Church in Sudan worked closely with the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) to make the referendum a success, playing a key role in proceedings: "The Church ensured the restoration of the hope of people who were once hopeless” .


Bishop Arikanjelo Wani Lemi

The Bishop added that the Sudan People's Liberation Army / Movement (SPLA/M) have a long-standing relationship that started long before the referendum took place, working hand-in-hand to attain peace in the form of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which itself brought the referendum. From his point of view, the Bishop believed all along that people would vote for independence: “The Church is not a building, the Church is people. So when I ask my people what they voted for, they openly tell me. So that is how I know.”


Christianity is the dominant religion in Southern Sudan. However, questions asking people about religion and ethnicity were omitted from the last census in 2008, so there are no official figures on what percentages of the population follow what religion. In the 1990s international organisations estimated that between ten and fifteen percent of Southerners were Christian.


More background information on the Bishop from the Berkley Center Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University

Since the signing of the CPA in 2005, hundreds of thousands of Southern Sudanese have returned from years in exile - many of those from Uganda practice Christianity, while in other places such as Khartoum some exiles followed Islam, making up-to-date figures on religious beliefs very hard to gauge. Yet Southern Sudan is internationally identified as having a Christian population, and the ruling SPLM party has a historic relationship with the Church.


Ramba Beatrice, a Yei resident and an observer during the referendum, believes that politics began in the Church, and that is why the Church now has a such a strong voice in the politics of this nation. In her opinion she affirms that, one way or the other, the Church is the foundation of the CPA: “The Church did a great deal in conducting prayers and summating requests of peace to God. And God answered those prayers.”


The Church has lost its dignity"
Simon Surunga, Yei NCP Vice Chairperson 
Yei County Information Officer Nelson Monday Moi also believes the Church's role in the referendum was key:  “In addition to civic education programs, the Church helped to sensitise the public about the referendum.” Moi said that civic educators and other international programs that were supposed to educate people about the exercise did not have enough time to do so, adding that,“in fact the Church has done about 90 per cent of the civic education in Yei County. He went on to explain that during the war the Church kept a close relationship with the people, thus strengthening their hearts and giving them courage to carry on to the very end of the war.


Read the analysis of "Church and State" in Southern Sudan by The Economist

However, not everyone sees the role of the Church  in the referendum so positively. Simon Goyi Obede Surunga, the Vice Chairperson of President Omar al-Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) in Yei and also a devoted church-goer, said: “The Church has lost its dignity because it has gone astray.” Surunga believes the Church contributed a lot of good things in the war as well as in the referendum, but he said the Church played a great role in convincing people to vote for separation – something he thinks was not good at all. He blamed the Church for getting involved in the politics instead of dealing with its fundamental work of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. The politician said the strong relationship between the Church, GoSS and SPLM often meant the Church helped the Government in its roles: “If we consider referendum, it is the Church that did most of the sensitisation and campaigning for secession”. 


Ekklesia: South Sudan appeals to churches over nation-building

Regardless of differing opinions, the role of the Church in Southern Sudan is likely to remain a prominent one, as the country gains independence. For Bishop Arikanjelo the Church has a lot more work to do as the country faces challenges ahead. He warned: “Freedom comes alongside responsibility,” emphasizing that the Church would be encouraging Southern Sudanese to rise up to this obligation as a ‘New Sudan’ is finally attained.

The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or opinions of the publishers of

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