Listen to the full interview with Ferdinand Lugonzo:
By BosNewsLife Africa Service with additional reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos and Vatican Radio's Laura Ieraci
JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN (BosNewsLife)-- Christians in South Sudan faced more uncertainty Tuesday, January, 28, after churches were reportedly attacked, priests forced to flee their posts, while a bishop disappeared.
Among those attacked were Catholic church premises in the South Sudanese diocese of Malakal, situated in an area of the world's youngest nation, which has been hit by more than a month of fighting between South Sudanese government forces and rebels.
Though both sides signed a ceasefire deal last week, there have been reports of violations of the ceasefire. Some 600,000 people, many of them Christians, have fled their homes amid reports of mass killings and rebel attacks against churches.
The Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa, the coordinating body of the Catholic dioceses, has expressed concern about the situation. General Secretary Ferdinand Lugonzo, said a team of bishops visited South Sudan and discovered that the apostolic administrator of the diocese of Malakal was "run out of his residence", which was subsequently looted.
Several priests in the diocese were attacked and forced to abandon their posts, he said, adding that the safety of the bishop-emeritus is also a concern. As of January 24, their whereabouts were still unknown, he explained.
WAITING FOR CALM
The priest said church officials were waiting for "some state of calm in the region" to ask international forces to first of all locate the bishop.
It comes at a difficult time for churches, which are already struggling to serve as places of refuge for victims of the crisis, church officials said.
“The rebels are now attacking church premises where some of the victims are running to, and even the church personnel themselves are not safe,” Lugonzo added.
In a statement, the Association of East African Episcopal Conferences urged the South Sudanese government to offer protection of church premises and personnel.
The bishops said it was time for a "cessation of hostilities; an assurance that the corridors for humanitarian access remain open; an expansion of the table of negotiations towards peace; a softening of politicians’ positions in the interest of saving lives; international support for the humanitarian work of Caritas Internationalis amid the crisis; and prayers for peace."
They also noted that the churches have been absent from peace negotiations to date. "The Church was active in the healing and reconciliation process in the country prior to the crisis," explained Lugonzo, adding that it should have a role to play in accompanying the troubled nation towards peace.
The country of over 11 million people, erupted into violence on December 15 when rebels loyal to ousted Vice President Riek Machar tried to stage a coup. Violence quickly spread, with reports of mass killings emerging nationwide.
Commentators say the conflict is a huge blow for South Sudan and the country's President Salva Kiir who declared in early December to be "open for business."
South Sudan, which has a large Christian population, became an independent state on July 9, 2011, following a referendum on breaking away from Sudan, a mainly Sunni Muslim nation.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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