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Birth of a Nation

With American evangelicals on the ground in South Sudan.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By ARMIN ROSEN
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Juba, South Sudan

Photo of a woman carrying a bag marked "U. S. Aid"

It’s easy to tell which countries stuck by South Sudan.

ALL MAGES: NEWSCOM

The Sudanese conflict has entered a dangerous new phase. Between 1983 and 2005, the Arab-led government in Khartoum and its proxies struggled to defeat a militia movement aimed at establishing a new political order for the polyglot country, one that wasn’t based on violent coercion and racial privilege. The current fighting along the disputed border between Sudan and newly independent South Sudan threatens to throw the region back into chaos. Just seven years after a peace agreement successfully ended a war that had killed somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 million people (in a country with a present population of 8 million), there are daily reports of bombings and border attacks, troubling reminders of the frailty of the post-conflict status quo. 

The 2005 peace treaty ended the war while allowing the south to vote on independence, and on July 9, 2011, South Sudan became an independent state, recognized by virtually every other country​—​including Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum. The region’s non-Arab Christians and animists successfully separated themselves from an Islamist regime that imposed a mild form of sharia law, depopulated much of Darfur, sheltered Osama bin Laden, and bought advanced weapons systems from Iran. One of the most devastating conflicts in African and Middle Eastern history had apparently ended.

South Sudan is the Arabic-speaking world’s only non-Muslim majority state. Here Christian evangelicals are openly welcomed​—​in particular, a group of American aid workers who have helped build the country, and lobbied on its behalf, and who now have no intention of abandoning it, even on the brink of war.

When I visited South Sudan in March, three weeks before the outbreak of the latest hostilities, I found a country exhilarated by the successful end to a decades-long struggle. South Sudan is building its first paved highway, and I met officials who spoke excitedly about a future of nationwide infrastructure, large-scale agricultural development, and even regional leadership. The national capital of Juba is dotted with new construction, and legions of NGO employees, foreign businessmen, and workers from nearby Uganda and Ethiopia give the city a decidedly cosmopolitan character. It feels like a place that is eagerly making up for lost time. 

During the war years, Juba was a garrison city controlled by the regime in Khartoum and under constant siege by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement. The government’s rule over the city bordered on totalitarian, recalls Justin Lotio, a pastor in Juba who stayed through the violence. “We were living like people in a cage,” he says. “Today, there is freedom.” 

Walking the bustling and newly paved streets, it’s easy to tell which countries stuck by South Sudan during its two-decades-long hell​—​Juba must be the only Arabic-speaking capital where American and Israeli flags hang proudly from taxi drivers’ windshields. 

From the beginning of his presidency, George W. Bush took an active role in shaping the peace process that led to southern independence. Bush’s first secretary of state, Colin Powell, was instrumental in negotiating the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the 2005 treaty signed by Khartoum and the late SPLM leader John Garang that ended the civil war.

Driving the Bush administration’s Sudan policy was an unusual coalition of African-American and evangelical Christian leaders, groups whose involvement in the Sudan issue went back decades. In the 1980s, American Christians began lobbying on behalf of their persecuted -coreligionists in Sudan, and evangelicals in Congress, including Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, and Frank Wolf, became forceful advocates. Over the decades, Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, has established himself as a significant presence here. Graham, who met three times with Bashir, is president and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse, a North Carolina-based evangelical relief organization present in over 100 countries.

In South Sudan, Samaritan’s Purse has a dozen bases and sub-bases, scores of heavy vehicles, two light cargo aircraft, and a small army of staff. They’ve opened hospitals, drilled boreholes, fed refugees, and trained rural South Sudanese in farming and water management. Len Levins, a Juba-based 20-year U.S. Army veteran serving as the organization’s acting country director, summed up the organization’s mission in terms simultaneously pragmatic and theological. “If it’s too hard to do for somebody else, we can’t take that as an excuse” he tells me. “If people are starving, helping them is what we’re called to do.”

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