At the invitation of Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir, Roberts and Ken Welborn, executive director of Christian Ministries to the United Nations, helped kick off a 40-day prayer vigil on Dec. 1 that leads up to the historic Jan. 9 national referendum on secession.
"The primary purpose for our visit was to help launch a 40-day prayer initiative in Southern Sudan for a peaceful resolution to their question of national autonomy," Roberts said. "We spent our time praying, meeting with key government officials, preaching in the National Day of Prayer assembly, speaking in churches and encouraging the Christian people of Southern Sudan. Ken Welborn has done a fantastic job in building relationships. He has been a bright and shining light to encourage the Sudanese leaders to put their faith in the Lord."
The Midwestern president added that he and Welborn spent time visiting with Christian leaders in the eastern African nation. Roberts said the emphasis was placed on reinforcing their focus on the sovereignty of God; helping to strengthen their faith in His ability to deliver and develop their nation; and, in the shadow of 2 Chronicles 7:14, encouraging them in the urgency of both prayer and repentance.
According to an article released by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the people of Southern Sudan regard January's referendum as their first genuine opportunity to exert their right to self-determination as enshrined in the 1945 U.N. Charter, and later underlined in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended decades of civil war between north and south. About 2 million people died during the war.
Southern Sudan, with a mostly Christian and animist population of some 8-10 million native Sudanese, has long been dominated by the predominantly Arab-Muslim north, which, with some 20 million people, has twice the population. Roberts noted the significance to believers of the referendum's approval there.
"The passing of the referendum will mean religious liberty for the South," he said. "Although decidedly Christian, they are looking at a style of government and a relationship between church and state that is very akin to what the United States enjoys. They are determined to establish a state that ensures religious rights and liberties for all people -- that includes all Christians, Muslims and animists. They're not looking to start a religious nation that endorses a particular religion, church or denomination. But they want to be a state that honors God and guarantees religious liberty."
The nation of Sudan has experienced ongoing civil wars since the mid-1950s mainly over land issues, religious differences and oil rights. In January 2005, the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement included a permanent ceasefire and a provision for the South to hold a self-determination referendum.
In late-August, Sudan's ambassador to the United States, Akec Khoc, visited the Midwestern campus and asked for prayer that the Lord would deliver His people through the upcoming referendum saying, "They (Sudanese people) cannot do everything through politics," Khoc said. "They have prayed to God in the past and their prayers have been answered. Pray for God's protection and His guidance to now vote for what is good."
As preparations continue for the January election, Roberts said, "We visited several of the polling stations where people were registering to vote, and things seemed to be going well. They need 60 percent of the populace to register to have a qualified election, so they've got a big challenge ahead. The national leadership seems committed and confident that this will happen."
Making the task even more difficult, citizens in Southern Sudan have faced issues such as intimidation and threats from factions opposing the referendum.
The mood among believers in the South is mostly upbeat, Robert said.
"The people with whom I interacted while there were cautiously optimistic," Roberts said. "They have fears and concerns because they've just gone through years of civil war, bloodshed, fighting, killing and many of them have lost loved ones. They've faced the realities of war and what that brings on them personally and upon their country. They are trusting God and praying they don't have to go through that again. With that in mind, they are hopeful about the outcome of the referendum."
Speaking about the importance of the prayer initiative, which had been planned since mid-2010, Roberts said, "Our desire was to help encourage and prepare their hearts for a supernatural work of God, and to seek Him for both the deliverance and long-term development of their nation. We wanted the leaders and citizens of South Sudan to know that freedom is a gift from God and to encourage them to have a strong commitment to that belief. Christians there have committed to an ongoing time of prayer and intercession for the upcoming referendum."
Welborn, who was instrumental in organizing the prayer vigil and also is a North American Mission Board missionary to the United Nations, said, "What a blessing it has been to partner with the government and churches of Southern Sudan in helping them to seek and trust God with all their hearts at this critical threshold. This is truly a contemporary David and Goliath scenario, in which those who dare to stand for and with God will, I believe, experience His amazing blessing. May the Lord exalt them to be a shining light for Him throughout east Africa and beyond."
T. Patrick Hudson writes for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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