NASHVILLE, Tenn. – For some south Sudanese Christians, their opportunity vote for independence from the largely Muslim north is more than a condition of a peace accord ending a two-decade civil war — it's the divine will of God.
They believe the independence of their nation was foretold in the Bible more than 2,000 years ago. Isaiah 18 is one of several passages that refers to the land of Cush, which describes the people as tall and smooth-skinned and the land as divided by rivers.
"It used to be read so many times on Sunday," said Ngor Kur Mayol, who drove to Nashville from Atlanta earlier this month to vote in the independence referendum. "It mentions a lot the way we were suffering in for so many years and how that same suffering, we're going to end it today, to vote for independence."
The interpretation is not so far-fetched, said Ellen Davis, a professor at Duke Divinity School who has been working with the Episcopal Church of Sudan to strengthen theological education there since 2004.
"There's no doubt that Isaiah 18 really is speaking about the people of the upper Nile," she said. "It really is speaking about the Sudanese people."
Davis said the belief in the prophecy is nearly universal among the Christians she has met in Sudan.
"In general Sudanese Christians believe to a much greater extent than mainline North American Christians that the Bible speaks to current events, specifically political events," Davis said.
Jock Paleak, pastor at the Sudanese Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the Nashville suburb of Gallatin, explained how Isaiah 18 has been interpreted to refer to independence.
"The Bible says when they will raise their flag on the mountain, the whole world will see."
The eyes of the world are now on southern Sudan, Paleak said, as they await the official results of the referendum that will almost assuredly favor division of Africa's largest country by a wide margin. Results released last week of voting by more than 8,000 Sudanese refugees in the United States ran 99 percent in favor of independence.
Isaiah 18 concludes with a passage Paleak said predicts the end of rule by the Muslim north.
He paraphrases and explains it: "'They will bring their gifts to the mountain of Zion,' which means we will be free to praise God in our own way in our own land."
Paleak said he has not come to a "100 percent conclusion" on whether the prophecy really refers to southern Sudan's independence, but Pastor Malok Deng, at Nashville's Sudanese Ministry Bible Church, is certain.
He sees the suffering of the south Sudanese during the civil war that left 2 million dead and the displacement of the many who fled the war as part of a divine plan described in Zephaniah 2 and other passages.
"It says God will send enemies to chastise us so we can repent of our sins and come back to God," he said. "So that's why all this is happening."
Deng said the war was responsible for his own salvation.
"When I was a teenager, because of the war, I came to the northern part of Sudan. That's when I met the Lord and got saved. If not for the war ... I would have died in paganism."
For Pastor Martin Drani, of the interdenominational Sudanese Community Church in Nashville, there is no doubt that God is the true force behind the referendum.
"This is a prophecy, and if you believe the Bible then every prophecy must come to pass," Drani said.
"The Israelites, there also was a prophecy about them and it was fulfilled."
But voter Ayak Duot, of Nashville, disagrees about the prophecy.
"I heard that, but I don't believe it," she said.
If southern Sudan becomes a new country, she said, it will be because many people, her father included, fought and died for the cause.
The Episcopal Church of Sudan: http://sudan.anglican.org/
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