?Today, the refugee crisis in Sudan is one of the most widely reported humanitarian concerns in the world. However, many people are unsure why millions of people have been displaced from their homes. The answer is a religious conflict that has been developing in Sudan for hundreds of years. The root causes of religious conflict in Sudan between the Muslim North and Christian South stem from primarily political sources, including historical favoritism to northern Sudanese areas, unequal political representation, and governmental oppression and marginalization of certain religious groups.
For thousands of years, these causes have created boundaries that are ingrained in Sudanese history. For centuries, various Sudanese political powers throughout the country have oppressed and taken advantage of different minority groups, causing a deepening rift between parties with opposing ideologies. From the period of colonization, there has been a forced separation between the Northern and Southern parts of Sudan . Since the time of Sudanese independence, Muslim governments in the North have attempted to enforce laws of oppression and “Islamification” against the Christian and animist South (Deng, 2001).
This has caused a rising conflict between Muslims and minority groups who have “a vision, of a secular, democratic Sudan” (Deng 2001, 1).
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Fueling this conflict are the differing opinions between the North and South of the role of religion within government. The Muslims believe that these two institutions should be fully integrated, while the Southerners, who are generally more Christian and secular, believe that there should be a separation between the two.
It seemed that best way to resolve this conflict in a permanent way was to separate Sudan into two independent countries, so that each country could form a governing body that rightly represents the interests and ideology of its constituents. However, when South Sudan gained autonomy in 2011, the conflict between the two groups did not end (Insight on Conflict, 2012).
For centuries, Christianity and Islam have been practiced in Sudan. Although the current population of the Sudanese/South Sudanese region is mainly Muslim, Christianity was the first religion brought to the area (Jewish World Watch, 2006).
The spread of Christianity in the Sudan began thousands of years ago, when the region was split up into fifty different kingdoms. Around 450 AD, the Byzantine empire sent Christian missionaries into Nubia, which included present day Sudan and South Sudan, to start spreading their message. Many Nubian peoples eventually converted to different denominations of Christianity, following the lead of their rulers. Christianity remained the dominant religion in the Sudanese region for the next 1,000 years (Wheeler, 1991).
For the next century, control of the Sudanese region switched hands between various nations and empires. In the 1890’s, Britain, which is predominantly Christian, sought to regain control over Sudan. Christian missionaries spread their religion in Sudan, especially the south, over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Missions to the Sudan in this period were not exclusively English. Catholic missionaries from Italy also attempted to spread their faith into the Sudan, as evidenced by religious writing penned mainly in Italian.
The diffusion of Christianity was resisted by Muslims in the North (Wheeler, 1991).
About 200 years after Christianity was introduced in the Sudan, Islam began to spread into the region. After the death of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, Muslim Arab armies moved west into Africa in order to conquer and convert African populations to Islam. In the 640’s, Muslims invaded Nubia, conquering major cities and destroying Christian cathedrals (Metz, 1991).
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The attempted Arab conquest of Nubia eventually failed, but the Muslims still recognized a benefit in maintaining amicable relations in the area.
Through friendly economic agreements, the Arab Muslims were able to establish a position of privilege in Nubia. Over hundreds of years, these economic agreements and the spread of Arab culture into Nubia caused some Africans to convert to Islam. In the 1800’s. Muslims made another attempt to take control of the Sudanese region. They began a harsh military campaign in the area, taking many Africans as slaves. Eventually, British and Egyptian armies intervened in the situation to stop the fighting, taking control of the region (Jewish World Watch, 2006).
For the next century and a half, Sudan remained under Anglo-Egyptian control. Islam flourished in northern Sudan, while Christianity and tradition tribal religions remained prominent in southern Sudan. The causes of civil and religious unrest in Sudan are mainly political. Unequal resource allocation by the British government lead to a struggling southern economy. Since the time of imperial rule, favoritism has been demonstrated towards the mainly Muslim north. The British government focused most of their resources in the north, which aided development and urbanization of the area.
In 1946, the British government decided to combine north and south Sudan (Jewish World Watch, 2006).
The majority of representative power of the newly combined country was given to Northerners. When a legislative body was established by Britain to oversee the new nation in 1948, “76 seats were given to the North and only 13 to the South, while 6 were reserved for British of? cials” (Rothermund, 2006).
This decision further marginalized the South politically and economically. Without political representation, southerners could not express their needs and wishes.
Without basic necessities and attention from the British government that controlled it, south Sudan continued to struggle. This caused southern citizens to become resentful towards their government and northern counterparts. In 1956, when Sudan gained independence from Britain, “the northern-dominated government in Khartoum sought to Arabize and Islamize the South. It had two motives: a belief that homogenizing the country would ensure national unity and a desire to spread what they considered to be a superior civilization” (Deng, 2001).
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The South orchestrated a rebellion in fear that they would be further oppressed and marginalized if they refused to convert. This rebellion lead to the first Sudanese civil war, in which up to 1. 5 million southern Sudanese people were killed (Jewish World Watch, 2006).
The Addis Ababa, a fragile peace agreement, was reached in 1972 to end the war, and grant regional autonomy to the South. However, in 1983, President Jafar Muhammad Numayari imposed Shari’a, Muslim law, on the whole country.
This immediately led to a second civil war starting in 1983 (Insight on Conflict, 2012).
According to the United Nations, “this conflict lasted 22 years and is estimated to have killed 2 million people and rendered another 4 million homeless”. During this time, the primarily Muslim Northern government nationalized all Southern Christian schools, changed the official day of rest from Sunday to Friday, and imprisoned Christian priests and missionaries through the Missionary Societies Act .
When southern leaders motivated citizens to stand up for themselves by distributing political reading material and orchestrating protests throughout the south, they were arrested and faced severe prison sentences (Deng, 2001).
This harsh, selective oppression of Christian culture by the government only exacerbated the violence. Without political representation, southern Sudanese people could not resist the government essentially illegalizing their religious and cultural practices. The southern Sudanese population responded to these actions by forming the
Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, a group that fought the oppressive government in the north (Deng, 2001).
The two nations have already taken steps to resolve this conflict and end the violence by separating Sudan into two countries, Sudan and South Sudan (Jewish World Watch, 2006).
In July 2011, the country voted almost unanimously to grant the South independence (Insight on Conflict, 2012).
However, this step forward did not solve all of the political and religious problems faced by Sudanese people. The ongoing violence in Sudan is mainly caused by both deep-rooted and more recent political reasons.
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Currently, border definition is a huge problem between the two countries, as “20% of the new border has not been agreed upon” (Insight on Conflict 2012, 1).
The governments of both countries have accused the others of supporting aggressive rebel groups and violence along the border. Although the border struggle is often seen as an economical dispute, it will ultimately be the responsibility of the Sudanese and South Sudanese government to end the fighting along the border. Additionally, a large population of refugees, numbering in the tens of thousands, has been displaced by this conflict.
Many Southern Sudanese are still living in the North, with no resources or means to move back into the South, where they feel they rightfully belong (Insight on Conflict 2012, 1).
The ultimate solution to end the religious conflict in Sudan is intervention by the United Nations to force the two countries to make a compromise. It is important that quick, diplomatic action is taken to resolve the border struggle between Sudan and South Sudan. Once this step is taken, further discussions can be held to determine how to best relocate refugees that have been displaced by decades of war.
The two countries should then set up a legislative body that gives equal representation to both Sudan and South Sudan, so that decisions made about how to end the violence can be made fairly and cooperatively. Over half a century of almost continuous civil war has left both nations with nothing to lose, so they can work easily from the ground up. Together, these two nations can figure out how to work together in order to benefit both economically and politically. The governments of both nations must recognize the legitimacy of the religious and political beliefs and needs of the other country.
Creating a more open-minded attitude towards the conflict will make resolution much smoother. The conflict in Sudan and South Sudan is not one that can be solved easily. Although Southern Sudanese independence was a great leap forward in solving this conflict, the nations of Sudan and South Sudan must continue to cooperate in order to achieve true peace and understanding between the governments and peoples of their nations. Creating an official governmental body to oversee the ongoing conflict and try to resolve it diplomatically instead of violently can ultimately put an end to a struggle that has been escalating for centuries.
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