South Sudan came into existence 10 years ago, but there is little to celebrate for the world's newest nation, says Father James Oyet Latansio, general secretary of the South Sudan Council of Churches.
"Now COVID-19 is taking a bitter toll," said Latansio in an interview, noting the council is constantly striving to drive forward actions and prayer to bring about peace and stability.
The churches' leader said, despite a lack of progress, he believes there is hope for South Sudan.
"I believe it will come through the church, to which two-thirds of the population belongs, with the Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian Churches as the largest," he said in the an interview with the World Council of Churches.
Almost from the moment of its independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, the country had suffered from constant conflict, hunger, and sexual violence, he said.
"It is deeply disappointing that after decades of struggle, the creation of South Sudan has not brought the peace we so desired.
"Almost immediately, the president and vice president who took office at independence fell out with each other, leading to confrontation between the country's two main ethnic groups," said Latansio.
The decision of South Sudan to secede can be traced to a consistent policy of marginalization by the northern Sudanese government part of the southern part since Sudan became independent in 1956.
The people of the South, who are non-Arab, the majority are Christians and animist, and they felt oppressed by their neighbors in the Arab and Muslim north.
A civil war was fought between 1983 and 2005 and then it ended a signed North-South peace deal granted southerners the right to a self-determination vote after six years and the outcome was supported by Western nations.
Since then, however, persistent violence has displaced more than 1.6 million people within South Sudan, and more than 2 million have fled for neighboring countries.
The coucil of churches has played a persistent role in trying to get the warring parties to allow real peace.
Latansio recalled the journey to South Sudan's independence in 2011 when the nation was consumed with memories of flag-waving and jubilations.
The council says "a wasted decade" has passed due to the "self-destruction and self-sabotage of our collective future and prosperity that occurred in 2013 and 2016."
Latansio noted the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, signed in September 2018, was the most viable framework for peace and a beacon of hope for South Sudanese.
"Unfortunately, it's slow and inconsistent implementation is very worrying and shattering all hopes to restore stability through the peace agreement, and there appears to be a lack of political will.
"In this uncertainty, 'the Church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of Truth' (1 Timothy 3:15) and reconciliation, has continued to stand strong and engage with the South Sudanese political actors in advocating for sustainable peace, justice, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation in the land," said Latansio.
Inter and intra-communal conflicts have flared up despite the churches' commitment, challenging the implementation of the agreement, making it slow and inconsistent, he said.
Genuinely ecumenical, the South Sudan Council of Churches includes Anglican, Orthodox, Pentecostal, and a broad swathe of Protestant traditions and Roman Catholics.
A Catholic, Latansio works with a network of faith leaders, civil society organizations, and development partners.
"There are opportunities for peace through dialogue and evidence-based advocacy.
"The South Sudan Council of Churches focuses on facilitation, dialogue with non-signatories to the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, consultations, shuttle diplomacy, and prayer accompaniment," said Latansio.
The council arranges solidarity visits to bring together parties in areas with escalating conflict and inter-communal violence.
LOCAL-LEVEL CONFLICT RESOLUTION
"It supports local-level conflict resolution in many areas through consultations and dialogue. These culminate in the development of peace agreements and action plans and are often accompanied by anti-hate speech campaigns," Latansio said.
In addition, the South Sudan Council of Churches supports third-party mediation and engagement of the South Sudan Opposition Movement Alliance through the Rome peace process under the auspices of the Community of Sant'Egidio, a partner.
The council meets other non-signatories to the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan to build trust and confidence among the political leaders and push for peace in South Sudan.
"The church is almost the only institution that people trust. If this conflict and the pandemic is to be overcome, and South Sudan rebuilt, it will be to a large extent through the efforts of the church and the global ecumenical fellowship," said Latansio.
These include the World Council of Churches, All Africa Conference of Churches, and the church-based organizations - specialized ministries such as ACT Alliance, Caritas Groups, and others.