JUBA, South Sudan (BP) — With South Sudan on the brink of renewed civil war, a Southern Baptist-led relief organization and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary remain unrelenting in their ministries there, amid what one aid worker called “a bigger humanitarian crisis than Syria.”
“There is no hope [for South Sudan] other than Jesus,” said Ann Rao, founder and president of Living Water Community Transformation, an organization that engages in women’s ministry, church planting, education of children and agribusiness training in the South Sudanese community of Akot. “I don’t even know what else to say. The whole situation is very overwhelming.”
South Sudan, established in 2011 when Christian regions of heavily-Muslim Sudan gained independence, has been embroiled in fighting between warring tribal groups since an attempted coup in 2013, Rao, a member of Idlewild Baptist Church in Tampa-area Lutz, Fla., told Baptist Press.
The latest round of violence broke out July 7 and escalated the next day when armed clashes erupted between troops loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his rival, vice president Riek Machar, as the two met in the nation’s state house, according to media reports. The clashes left 273 dead, the BBC reported.
Machar remains in hiding, and a 10-week-old peace arrangement “hangs by a thread,” according to the BBC.
An NPR report cast partial blame for the conflict on the international community because it has not “used economic sanctions to force both leaders to control their fighters.”
At least 36,000 South Sudanese refugees have been displaced from their homes this month, bringing the total number of refugees since December 2013 to approximately 1.6 million, Reuters reported. An additional 743,000 people have fled the country, and 4.8 million are “severely short of food.”
“The lack of food is just horrible,” Rao said. “… Supposedly, it’s a bigger humanitarian crisis than Syria.”
In partnership with Baptist Global Response (BGR), a global relief organization, Living Water feeds hundreds of students each day at its two primary schools and has helped establish a 12-acre farm.
A lack of preparedness for national independence helps fuel the conflict, which has included “massacres” and “a lot of rapes,” Rao said. She lamented that though many South Sudanese profess to be Christians, including some top government leaders, the “hatred from all the killing and revenge killing” will continue to cause national strife.
Southeastern Seminary’s ministry to the South Sudanese includes theological education of pastors in partnership with the South Sudan Baptist Convention, with hope of a seminary being established one day in Juba, the capital city.
Many South Sudanese “pastors and congregations have sought safety in refugee camps in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia,” Southeastern associate vice president for global theological initiatives John Ewart told BP in written comments. “They are starting churches and conducting training and discipleship within those contexts. I continue to get reports of new converts and baptisms taking place in these camps. In addition, many pastors are traveling in and out of South Sudan to continue to minister there as well.”
During a mission trip last year with Southeastern President Daniel Akin to train South Sudanese pastors in Uganda, Ewart wrote about the Christian unity among pastors from warring tribes.
“We have church leaders from both tribes here with us seeking solutions and training,” Ewart wrote in a blog post. “It is a testimony to Christ and His grace to watch them sing and learn and fellowship together after the brutality many of them have suffered at the hands of the other tribe.”
Some pastors living in Uganda and Kenya “travel as circuit riders into South Sudan pastoring as many as seven churches at one time,” he wrote. “They spend hours in travel and days away from their families. Some have seen their churches destroyed or scattered and wait to go back to rebuild. Most of their churches and church plants simply meet under trees.”
BGR executive director Jeff Palmer told BP that South Sudan’s conflict does not seem to provoke “a lot of sympathy” in the West because Americans find it difficult to empathize with “people fighting over tribalism. We don’t understand that in the States.”
Yet Americans — followers of Jesus especially — should care about South Sudan “because of the great need that’s there,” Palmer said.
Rao asked believers to “pray for peace in South Sudan.”
The renewed call to prayer echoes a 40-day prayer emphasis supported by the Woman’s Missionary Union leading up to Sudan’s national referendum on the South’s independence in 2011. Sudan’s then-ambassador to the U.S. Akec Khoc, a Christian, addressed the WMU’s Orlando, Fla., Missions Celebration and Annual Meeting in 2010 regarding his nation’s need for prayer.
“We are coming to you for prayer to our heavenly Father to give guidance to the leaders and the people of Sudan because it is only through Him that we can get peace,” Khoc said.