Religion As A Divider: Is Sudan Set To Become Two Countries?
Growing up in a Lebanese household, discussions about the similarities and differences between Christians and Muslims occur frequently. While superiority between the monotheistic religions will always be a hot topic for the “People of the Book,” earlier this week a personal experience entwined with the ongoing debate hit home for me.
I was traveling by public transport to an appointment and as I disembarked from the train, I exchanged glances with a young woman who had exactly the same eyes as mine. They were dark brown, almond-shaped and framed with kohl eyeliner (like every self-respecting Middle Eastern woman, of course). Hers peered out from a heavy veil, while mine were…free. As is often the case between Muslims and Christians of Arab heritage, we looked at each other with judgment. Skepticism. Familiarity.
We walked in different directions to get there, but we arrived at the same place. With nervous smiles, we greeted each other. She was covered from head to toe; her hijab various shades of pink and black. Her name was Sofia and she’d come to Homebass Youth Center to hear me speak. My sister is a case worker there and she’d organized for me to drop by during my last week home here (in Sydney, Australia) to give an inspirational talk to her clients about working hard and chasing your dreams. After I spoke to the multicultural group of teenagers, many of whom were refugees, Sofia and I ended up talking separately. The 20-year-old was preoccupied with thoughts of the historic referendum taking place this week in her homeland of Sudan, where southern Sudanese (who are majority Christian) are going through the process of voting for their independence from the predominantly Muslim north.
The referendum will have life-changing ramifications for many, particularly those in the much-poorer southern region. According to ABC Australia, at least 75 percent of the south lacks access to basic health care and electricity is equally sparse. More than anything human resources are needed, as skilled workers and educated professionals are practically non-existent. There are around 27,000 southern Sudanese living in Australia and around 9,000 of these are eligible and have enrolled to vote in the historic poll (there are approx. 60,000 diaspora voters registered globally). It is widely expected a referendum will favor secession, but the government of President Omar al-Bashir in Kartoum has made it clear Sudanese unity is non-negotiable.
More immediately but not unlike the rest of the world, Sudan is split between racial, cultural and religious lines. Sofia’s family emigrated to Australia only four years ago (she spoke not a word of English when she arrived and now speaks it fluently) to escape the turmoil that plagues the country. International alarm over the prospect of another civil war is growing by the day and Sofia is worried for her relatives there. There are five more days of voting and it may take weeks for the results to be known. For Sofia and her countrymen, this means waiting with baited breath for an outcome that may bring permanent divide to Sudan once and for all.