South Sudan bishops condemn atrocities, appeal for help to prevent famine

By Simon Caldwell

MANCHESTER, England (CNS) — South
Sudan’s Catholic bishops asked for the world’s help to prevent mass starvation that
threatens the lives of more than 5 million people.

In a separate statement, they
also said the looming famine was a man-made catastrophe. They denounced
government and rebel troops for attacking the civilian population and at times
operating “scorched-earth” policies in defiance of international law.

In a Feb. 23 appeal for
humanitarian assistance, the bishops said farmers have fled lands without
planting crops as civilians are targeted by both sides in the country’s
increasingly bloody three-year civil war. Food shortages have been compounded
by problems of unemployment, soaring inflation and poor rains, meaning that the
country had now entered a critical time, the bishops said.

Citing government predictions,
they estimated that about 4.9 million people would be facing famine by April
and about 5.5 million people by July.

Among the most vulnerable are
more than 3 million refugees and people internally displaced by fighting
between the supporters of President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek

“We anticipate difficult
times ahead in 2017 as our people are likely to witness mass starvation by
virtue of their multiple displacements, especially (because) the states that
traditionally produced cereals in surplus will be missing the planting season,
and that will, in turn, lead to further food insecurity in 2017,” the bishops said.

They called for “immediate
and unconditional concrete intervention and action … before it is too late.”

In a message sent to churches
around the world, the bishops asked Caritas Internationalis and the
international community to press for “an immediate stop to the violence
and (for) free movement of population.”

They also demanded safe access for
aid agencies to reach people in remote areas and secure delivery of
humanitarian aid to places where it was needed most urgently.

The bishops also collectively
directly addressed the Catholics of the predominantly Christian country in a
pastoral letter Feb. 23, telling them that any soldiers who killed, tortured
and raped civilians were guilty of war crimes.

“There seems to be a
perception that people in certain locations or from certain ethnic groups are
with the other side, and thus they are targeted by armed forces,” the
bishops said. “They are killed, raped, tortured, burned, beaten, looted,
harassed, detained, displaced from their homes and prevented from harvesting
their crops.”

“Some towns have become ‘ghost
towns,’ empty except for security forces and perhaps members of one faction or
tribe,” they added. “Even when they have fled to our churches or to U.N.
camps for protection, they are still harassed by security forces. Many have
been forced to flee to neighboring countries for protection.”

The bishops said hatred had
become so intense that the victims of such violence were being mutilated and
burned even after they were killed.

“People have been herded
into their houses, which were then set on fire to burn the occupants. Bodies
have been dumped in sewage-filled septic tanks. There is a general lack of
respect for human life,” the bishops said.

The church, they said, was
increasingly being accused of taking sides in the conflict, but they stressed
its neutrality.

“We are for all good things
— peace, justice, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, dialogue, the rule of
law, good governance — and we are against evil — violence, killing, rape,
torture, looting, corruption, arbitrary detention, tribalism, discrimination,
oppression — regardless of where they are and who is practicing them,”
the bishops said.

They concluded their letter by
expressing their joy at the prospect of a visit by Pope Francis to South Sudan
in 2017, saying he was “deeply concerned” by the suffering in the

“It would draw the
attention of the world to the situation here,” the bishops said.

On Feb. 22, Pope Francis used
his general audience to appeal for food aid to Sudan, warning the international
community that starvation might condemn to death “millions of people,
including children.”

In a Feb. 23 statement emailed
to Catholic News Service, Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham,
England, said that “the world must wake up to this man-made humanitarian

“The violence must stop and
the international community must intervene,” said Bishop Kenney, a former
president of Caritas Europa who has visited South Sudan on several occasions.

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