January 28, 2011 (YAMBIO) – The governor of Western Equatoria state Bangasi Joseph Bakosoro on Thursday removed the ban against Jehovah’s Witnesses practicing in the state.
For over a month the religious group’s activities were banned after some did not participate in the registration for southern Sudan’s referendum on independence due to their religious beliefs. Voting in the plebiscite took place from January 9 to 15 with registration for the landmark poll taking place in early December. The religious minority also did not take part in Sudan’s elections in April last year.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Yambio, the capital of Western Equatoria, had accused the state of harassment and suspension of worship in the state. Members of the religious group say they were wrongly accused of preventing its followers from taking part for religious reasons in the vote on Sunday that will likely see the south secede.
Governor Bakosoro made this remark during in a meeting held in his office at the state secretariat with Jehovah’s Witnesses, none locally as JW’s, from the region.
Last month during the referendum campaign, the communities of Western Equatoria had issues with some been in problems with members of Jehovah’s Witnesses for “not participating in national duties,” Bakosoro said.
The row between the Jehovah’s Witnesses nearly led to place of worship being burnt down on January 1. Taban Jamba Lemi, a Jehovah’s Witness based in Juba, told Reuters that the arson attack was carried out by “local people” but “instigated by the government.”
Sources in the state government have told Sudan Tribune that the state government decided to quell the situation over the referendum period by temporarily closing down all the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the state for security purposes until after the referendum.
The Carter Center, who are the largest international observer mission for the south’s recently completed referendum, said, in a statement last month, it was “concerned about intimidating rhetoric prevalent in
Western Equatoria aimed at the Jehovah’s Witness congregation.”
“The Carter Center calls upon all stakeholders in Western Equatoria to respect the right of all individuals to participate in or refrain from the referendum process.”
On Thursday Governor Bakosoro said “now that the referendum is over, time has come to resolve the outstanding issues incurred during the referendum, and that today 27th Jan the Jehovah witnesses all over the state should be allowed to operate.”
He called upon every citizen of the state not to mix religion with national duties and to respect the constitution. Bakosoro said that the lack of separation between religion and politics was one of the reasons the south has fought against various Khartoum governments.
Under Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the north-south civil war was branded a Jihad (holy war) to galvanise the north, which is predominantly Islamic, against the south were people practice Christianity and traditional African beliefs.
In 2005, after over two decades of civil war, Bashir’s ruling-National Congress Party, which came to power in 1989 signed a peace deal with southern rebels the SPLM. For the last five years the two have shared power and the south’s oil wealth, with the SPLM governing the south with a large degree of autonomy.
The peace agreement set in place a road map of events, including a national census, elections and finally the south’s referendum on independence.
Bakosoro, who became governor of Western Equatoria after winning the 2010 gubernatorial race, said at the meeting on Thursday that “JWs are free to resume their normal worships,” he encouraged them “to call upon all their members to come back and continue with their daily services.”
“Continue with your social lives and nobody will hinder your worship but when the government comes with programs every citizen must obey and participate in spite of your beliefs” added the governor.
He further stated that “participation in national duties does not hinder one’s relationship with God.”
“Even Jesus was counted in the census when he was born, therefore all people serve the same one God”, he said.
Migbe Keliopa Patrick a Jehovah’s Witness from Western Equatoria said, “the Church has no voice to stop or dictate any person from participating in national duties.”
He said that national duties such as “elections, census, and the just completed referendum are of individual consciousness to participate.”
Patrick said, the Jehovah’s Witness Church has emphasized the respect of the rule of law and regulations to all their members.
“We recognize the government of the people and for the people and by the people, despite being vocal in the state, we remain the citizens of the state under a government”, added Patrick.
Stanly Mazida, another Jehovah’s Witness, added that “it is the norms of the church to respect the higher authorities, more specially the government who provide the security of every citizen in the state.” He also pointed out that some of the Jehovah’s Witness participated in the referendum according to their beliefs as law abiding people.
Mazida appreciated the invitation of the governor to speak with them, saying citing that since the churches were closed the ban was not violated by any Jehovah’s Witnesses by praying or conducting services at those churches.
Tensions have mounted in the state going back to 2008 when some Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to take part in Sudan’s population census and household survey. These tensions were reignited during last year’s elections and the recent referendum, which is expected to see the south separate from the north.