In a Jan. 6 interview, Sudanese Bishop Joseph Garang of the Diocese of Renk speaks with ENS editor and international correspondent Matthew Davies about the upcoming referendum on independence, the importance of international partnerships, and the church’s role in ensuring peace and stability in the region.
The referendum is the final provision in Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which in 2005 brought to an end the decades-long civil conflict that claimed more than 2 million lives and displaced millions more. Should southerners vote to secede from the north in the referendum vote, which commences on Jan. 9 and runs through Jan. 15, millions of refugees are expected to return to the south from the north.
The Diocese of Renk lies on the border between the north and south, a region where tensions exist primarily because of the increased presence of military. In the ENS interview, Garang speaks about the church’s efforts to ensure that all people of faith and none work together during this critical time in Sudan’s history and beyond and to make provisions for returning refugees.
Garang has served the Renk diocese as its bishop since June 2008. He succeeded the Most Rev. Daniel Deng Bul, who was enthroned as archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan in April 2008. The Diocese of Renk has shared a companion relationship with the Diocese of Chicago since 2001.
The ENS interview with Garang follows.
ENS: Could you tell me about life in Renk? What is it like being a Christian in the border region of Sudan?
JG: We are praying every day for a peaceful referendum. In the border there are some tensions and it is a critical time for all of us, but we trust God. All of the troops from the north and south are on the border and facing one another. Too many people have died during the civil war and we don’t want that to happen any more.
Renk is one of the first stopping points for people traveling between the north and the south. The churches are prepared to welcome our brothers and sisters who are coming back from the north. The challenge is where they are going to stay and what they are going to eat and issues with medication and clean water.
I visited the Diocese of Chicago last month and we pressed the U.N. to be active to bring food to Renk so we can provide for the people.
The dioceses of Virginia and Chicago are supporting us a lot in order to prepare for [the increased demand for] medication.
There are a lot of mixed emotions right now. We are working with other churches to offer as much support as we can. But the majority of people in Renk are prepared to welcome the influx of refugees from the north with open arms.
ENS: How is the Episcopal Church of Sudan helping to ensure the referendum is conducted fairly and peacefully?
JG: We are very well prepared for the referendum. Before the [2010 presidential and parliamentary] elections, we sent people from Renk to a center in Juba to be trained as observers for the election. They have now been trained for the referendum, both Muslims and Christians. We have also worked to raise awareness of the need to vote. In the church we have been showing a DVD of the process of how to vote.
We have changed our regular worship on Sunday [Jan. 9] from 9 a.m. to 7 a.m. so that everyone will come and worship and we will go to the voting center at 8 a.m. so that we can vote together. On Jan. 8, we will have overnight prayers, so the church is playing a very good role.
ENS: Tell me about the relationships between Christians and Muslims in Renk?
JG: In Renk, there is no religious conflict. In October, I called all the leaders in the area and met with them. If you are Muslim, Christian, non-religious, now is the time to come together for the new nation. We don’t want any conflict between religions and during the meeting we understood that all parties must come together.
If there is a conflict it will come from the north, from the armies. We have prayers every day that no conflict is going to take place. In London, America and all over the world, people are praying for peace in Sudan and I trust that is going to happen.
ENS: Why are the international partnerships so important?
JG: If we did not have our brothers and sisters in the U.K., America, Canada, Australia, we don’t think that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement would have happened. The church played a very big role and talked with their governments, and their governments took action.
During my October  visit to the U.S., I met with [Episcopalians in] the Diocese of Virginia and they made a lot of appointments to meet with the U.S. government.
In the Diocese of Chicago, they are praying every Sunday. They passed a resolution in November so that every church in the diocese prays for Sudan and the Renk diocese.
The partnerships are very important to ensure that peace happens.
Sudan has been fighting since 1955 [the year the first civil war began.] Over 2.5 million people died during these wars. The entire world is looking for peace. The church came out and talked about Sudan. This is why the partnerships are very important. Without our companion dioceses the world would not know what is happening.
ENS: What is your message to people around the world at this time?
JG: I’d like to congratulate our brothers and sisters for their prayers up to now. Keep going and praying until the voting finishes. For my politicians, please keep pushing the president in order to keep peace going, and to our brother president of the south too. Keep it cool and let it happen peacefully.