By Matthew Davies, editor and international correspondent of the Episcopal News Service
Celebrations for a new nation rippled throughout Southern Sudan as election officials confirmed that nearly 99 percent of voters in the referendum had chosen independence.
"There is great joy in Juba today at the official announcement of the results," Robin Denney, an Episcopal Church missionary based in Juba, told Episcopal News Service via email Feb. 8. "People huddled around radios and televisions at 7 p.m. last night to listen to the official ceremony."
The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission announced in Khartoum on Feb. 7 that 98.83 percent of voters had chosen to secede from the north. The turnout of registered voters was 98 percent.
"But even as people congratulate each other today, conversations turn to the future," said Denney, an agricultural consultant to the Episcopal Church of Sudan.
Sudan now enters a transitional period with the official start of a new nation scheduled for July 9. But many issues are still to be resolved, such as the sharing of oil revenues and border demarcation between the north and the south.
Denney acknowledged that the long-term focus had been on Jan. 9, 2011, the date that the week-long referendum commenced. "Now the focus has shifted to the long future ahead, nationhood, how to address the problems of insecurity and under-development that have plagued Southern Sudan in the past," she said. "The people of Southern Sudan recognize the many challenges ahead but have great hope and great vision for what their nation will become."
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said Feb. 8 that the U.S.-based Episcopal Church "is deeply grateful for the peaceful outcome of the referendum in Sudan. We rejoice with our brothers and sisters in both Southern and Northern Sudan as they work for peaceful co-existence. Our partnerships with the Episcopal Church of Sudan, which will remain united as one church body, will continue. We pray for peace, and for communities where all may enjoy the abundant life for which all God's children have been created."
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the international criminal court for crimes against humanity, has reiterated his acceptance of the results. "We accept and welcome these results because they represent the will of the southern people," al-Bashir said Feb. 7 on national television, adding that he is committed to good relations with a new Southern Sudan.
"It is exciting to see that the referendum results have clearly shown the will of the people of Southern Sudan," Bishop Anthony Pogo of the Sudanese Diocese of Kajo Keji told ENS on Feb. 8. "President Bashir's announcement that he respects the results is encouraging as it will remove some of the fears that people had that the north would not welcome the results."
Pogo, who is chair of the communications commission for the Episcopal Church of Sudan, said: "There is a lot of happiness here with people saying that at long last we have got our freedom after over 50 years of waiting. The people in Kajo Keji are relieved that at long last real peace has been confirmed."
Pogo said he now prays that the two governing political parties -- the National Congress Party in the north and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the south -- "will agree amicably on the remaining pending issues in Abyei, citizenship, oil, the boundary and external debts."
A separate referendum that was to be held in the disputed border and oil-producing region of Abyei has been delayed indefinitely due to military tensions and differences between the north and south concerning voter eligibility.
President Barack Obama said on Feb. 7 that the referendum was "an inspiration to the world and another step forward in Africa's long journey toward justice and democracy. Now, all parties have a responsibility to ensure that this historic moment of promise becomes a moment of lasting progress."
Obama said that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement – which brought an end to decades of civil war and listed the referendum as a main provision – "must be fully implemented and outstanding disputes must be resolved peacefully." He also called for an end to the atrocities in Darfur, where a separate conflict has claimed as many as 300,000 lives.
Obama pledged to work with the governments of Sudan and Southern Sudan "to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition to independence. For those who meet all of their obligations, there is a path to greater prosperity and normal relations with the United States, including examining Sudan's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. And while the road ahead will be difficult, those who seek a future of dignity and peace can be assured that they will have a steady partner and friend in the United States."
The Episcopal Church of Sudan -- with its four million members, the vast majority of whom are based in the south -- is considered one of the largest non-governmental organizations in Southern Sudan and is strategically placed to serves its people as the country looks towards the future.
The U.S.-based Episcopal Church has observed a Season of Prayer for Sudan since mid-September at Jefferts Schori's request. Vigils and personal prayer have since been a priority for many who have stood in solidarity which the Episcopal Church of Sudan, a long-standing partner of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church.
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