JUBA- Pope Francis began a visit to South Sudan on Friday, Feb 3rd with an impassioned plea to its fractious leaders to turn their backs on the violence, ethnic hatred and corruption that have stopped the world’s youngest country from achieving peace and prosperity.
South Sudan broke away from Sudan to become independent in 2011 after decades of conflict, but civil war erupted in 2013. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, violence and hunger still plague the country.
Tens of thousands of people sang, drummed and ululated as the Roman Catholic leader arrived in the capital Juba on Friday for an unprecedented joint “pilgrimage of peace” with his Anglican and Scottish Presbyterian counterparts.
“I beg you, with all my heart, to accept four simple words: not my words, but those of Christ … ‘No more of this!'” the pope said in his first address, in front of an audience that included President Salva Kiir and other government figures.
“No more bloodshed, no more conflicts, no more violence and mutual recriminations about who is responsible for it,” he said.
On the eve of the pope’s arrival, 27 people were killed in Central Equatoria state, where Juba is located, in tit-for-tat violence between cattle herders and a local militia.
In a first, the pope was conducting his visit jointly with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the global Anglican Communion, and with Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Together, the three leaders represent the main religious traditions active in South Sudan, a predominantly Christian nation.
Huge crowds lined the 86-year-old pontiff’s route from the airport into town, with many waving the flags of South Sudan, the United Kingdom, Scotland and the Vatican.
The pope travelled in a small white Fiat car, waving through the window, surrounded by larger cars and security men. The crowds cheered wildly and jumped up and down as he went past.
“I wish to receive blessings from the pope and also from God. I am also looking for peace in South Sudan now that the Holy Father is visiting us,” said John Banga, 27, a Catholic resident of Juba who was among the jubilant crowds.
Afterwards, the pope had a private meeting with Kiir at the presidential palace, before delivering a speech to authorities, diplomats and representatives of civil society.
“We undertook this ecumenical pilgrimage of peace after hearing the plea of an entire people that, with great dignity, weeps for the violence it endures, its persistent lack of security, its poverty and the natural disasters it has experienced,” he said.
Francis said South Sudan was blessed with abundant natural resources but these should be shared out, not restricted to a few through corruption.
“The inequitable distribution of funds, secret schemes to get rich, patronage deals, lack of transparency: all these pollute the riverbed of human society,” he said.
South Sudan has some of the largest crude oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa but staggering amounts of money have been diverted from public coffers, the United Nations said in 2021.
South Sudan’s government has denied accusations of widespread corruption.
The pope had wanted to visit South Sudan for years but each time planning for a trip began it had to be postponed because of instability on the ground.
In one of the most remarkable gestures of his papacy, Francis knelt to kiss the feet of South Sudan’s previously warring leaders during a meeting at the Vatican in April 2019, urging them not to return to civil war.
President Kiir recalled that moment in his speech to the pope on Friday. “That rare gesture of humility did not go in vain,” he said, before promising to resume talks with holdout armed groups who did not sign the 2018 peace deal.
Earlier on Friday, Welby said he was horrified by the latest killings on the day before the pilgrimage.
“It is a story too often heard across South Sudan. I again appeal for a different way: for South Sudan to come together for a just peace,” he said on Twitter.
On Saturday, the three Christian leaders will meet a group of internally displaced people and hear their stories. On Sunday, the pope will celebrate Mass before flying back to Rome.