Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Juba, the new nation's capital, as they heard their president, Salva Kiir, declare the southern region of Sudan free and independent of the north.
South Sudan's official declaration of independence was read out at 1:25 p.m., followed by Kiir being sworn in as the new nation's president.
"Never again shall South Sudanese be oppressed for their political beliefs," Kiir said. "Never again shall our people be discriminated on account of race or religion. Never again shall we roam the world as sojourners and refugees."
The division between the north and the south is sharp. The north is arid, Arab and Muslim, while the south has many varieties of vegetation, is black African and is predominantly Christian and animistic.
"We have reclaimed our permanent home given to us by God as our birthright," Kiir said. "As we bask in the glory of nationhood, I call upon all South Sudanese to put the long and sad history of war, hardship and loss behind them and open a new chapter of peace and reconciliation in our lives."
With elaborate ceremony, the flag of Sudan was lowered and the new flag of South Sudan was raised. South Sudan is now the world's newest nation, raising the global number to 196, and the African continent's 54th nation-state.
Among the many dignitaries on hand Saturday were former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who played a key role in the 2005 peace agreement to end Sudan's civil war, and Susan Rice, the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations.
"Independence is not a gift that you were given," Rice said. "Independence is a prize that you have won."
The official ceremonies began with the singing of the country's new national anthem. "Oh God, we praise and glorify you for your grace on South Sudan," the opening lines say.
In preparation for South Sudan's independence, government officials urged citizens to attend churches and other houses of worship to pray for peace and thank God for their newfound freedom. Many churches held special services Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Nuru Baptist Church, the only Baptist church in Juba, held community services on Saturday to celebrate independence day, taking opportunity to share the Gospel with visitors.
The congregation played drums, sang and danced in traditional African worship. Many waved flags as they danced and sang. A feeling of jubilation filled the air.
One community leader, specially invited to the event, not only thanked God for the country's independence, guaranteeing religious freedom, but also for establishment of the church in the community. "Your presence here is a benefit and a blessing to our area," he said.
"Let us praise God that He has given us our freedom," said Sworo Elikana, a pastor of the church. "We must rejoice!"
The service focused on the theme "Heal the Brokenhearted and Set the Captives Free," from Isaiah 61.
"The passage says we must bring good news to the poor," Elikana said. "We have been poor."
The U.N. Security Council continues working to stabilize several areas in Sudan and South Sudan; however, U.N. troops assigned to Sudan since 2005 are being removed by Sudan President Omar Al-Bashir, despite disapproval from the U.S. The troops are expected to remain in the Darfur region and to occupy South Sudan during the early years of independence.
Rice said in a speech Thursday the U.S. was "extremely concerned by the government's decision to compel the departure of the U.N. mission in Sudan from Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states and elsewhere in the north."
President Bashir, who spoke favorably of the new country's efforts during the ceremonies, must now work with President Kiir to divide oil revenue, set borders, apportion responsibility for Sudan's $38 billion foreign debt and decide which country the oil-rich border states belong to.
One controversial state is Abyei, located just north of the proposed border. Abyei has long been hotly disputed because of oil in the region, but recent media reports say oil reserves are low and conflicts have become ethnic.
In May northern troops violently annexed Abyei in overwhelming numbers, forcing nearly 100,000 southern Sudanese to flee; however, a recent deal was made to pull out northern troops and allow Ethiopian soldiers to serve as U.N. peacekeepers for six months in the region.
During the Saturday gathering, Simon Gatluaklim, another pastor at Nuru Baptist Church, asked for special prayers for Abyei, for believers there and for the state to be joined with the south.
Fighting also broke out in Kadugli, the capital of Southern Kordofan, a key oil state bordering South Sudan and Abyei that has a large population of southern sympathizers. Thousands have fled the state to escape killings and air strikes by the northern army.
Despite ongoing reports of conflict initiated from the north, President Bashir may soon realize the secession's benefits for Sudan. U.S. President Barack Obama has offered to remove Sudan's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, enabling it to use the World Bank and restore diplomatic ties.
Charles Braddix and Zoe Allen are members of the International Mission Board's global communication team.
For a July 8 Baptist Press story on South Sudan independence, click here.
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