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Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 03, 2023
Pope Francis attends a meeting with authorities, civil society representatives and members of the diplomatic corps in the garden of the Presidential Palace in Juba, South Sudan, Feb. 3, 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis delivered a message, which, he said, “may appear blunt and direct” to the leaders of South Sudan’s government shortly after arriving in Juba, the country’s capital this Friday afternoon, Feb. 3. He implored leaders to “leave the time of war behind and let a time of peace dawn!”

The process of reconciliation to which the country’s leaders had committed themselves to in 2018 was “stagnant,” the pope said. “It is time to move from words to deeds. It is time to turn the page: It is the time for commitment to an urgent and much-needed transformation. The process of peace and reconciliation requires a new start.”

Pope Francis then spoke directly to President Salva Kiir and the five vice presidents of South Sudan, whose feet he had kissed in Rome in April 2019, when he begged them to make the peace process work:

Dear president and vice presidents, in the name of God, of the God to whom we prayed together in Rome, of the God who is gentle and humble in heart (cf. Mt 11:29), the God in whom so many people of this beloved country believe, now is the time to say “No more of this,” without “ifs” or “buts.” No more bloodshed, no more conflicts, no more violence and mutual recriminations about who is responsible for it, no more leaving your people athirst for peace. No more destruction: It is time to build! Leave the time of war behind and let a time of peace dawn!

The process of reconciliation to which the country’s leaders had committed themselves to in 2018 was “stagnant,” the pope said. “It is time to move from words to deeds.”

One of the problems paralyzing the peace process, diplomatic and religious sources told America, is that the political leaders that now govern this country of 13 million people were once warlords and still have the mentality of warlords. They attend only to their own group’s interests and have difficulty in sharing power. The South Sudanese people “need fathers, not overlords,” Pope Francis said. “They need steps to development, not constant collapses.”

The pope pulled no punches when later he told them that the “sons and daughters” of this land, “and history itself, will remember you if you work for the benefit of this people that you have been called to serve. Future generations will either venerate your names or cancel their memory, based on what you now do,” he said. “History will leave behind the enemies of peace and bring renown to those who are true peacemakers.”

Pope Francis is joined on this leg of his six-day visit to Africa by Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury; and Iain Greenshields, the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, who were already in South Sudan, when the papal flight arrived at 3 p.m. local time. They see their time in South Sudan as an ecumenical pilgrimage for reconciliation and peace.

Pope Francis: “History will leave behind the enemies of peace and bring renown to those who are true peacemakers.”

President Salva Kiir gave Pope Francis an official state welcome at the airport, complete with a guard of honor and the playing of the national anthems of South Sudan and Vatican City. They then drove to the presidential palace in Juba, the capital city, where tens of thousands of people lined the streets, many waving olive branches, Vatican and British flags, cheering and dancing as the pope and other leaders passed by.

Arriving at the palace, Mr. Kiir and the pope spoke privately for 30 minutes while the archbishop and the moderator joined the five vice presidents, top Vatican diplomats and the vice president of Uganda in their own meeting. The pope and the president later joined them, and the meeting lasted much longer than anticipated.

When it ended, President Kiir, wearing a traditional hat, escorted the three religious leaders to the gardens of the palace. The pope’s visit to South Sudan is “a historic milestone,” he said, in the history of this young country. He recalled how the pope had kissed his feet and those of the vice presidents at the Vatican in April 2019. “That gesture of humility did not go in vain,” he said. Then, he assured the pope that he and Vice President Riek Machar (the other major power figure in the country) are now working together to implement the revised peace agreement they had signed in 2018. He recognized that while not everyone is happy with what has been achieved thus far, they were committed to fully consolidating that peace agreement, which would allow for free and fair elections in 2024. Then, in a surprising statement, he announced that the government would return to the Rome talks (mainly sponsored by Sant’Egidio) with “the holdout groups” that had not signed the 2018 peace agreement. The government had suspended those talks some time back, but Mr. Kiir said had taken the decision to restart talks “in honor of” the pope’s visit.

Pope Francis: “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.”

The archbishop of Canterbury and the moderator of the Church of Scotland were scheduled to speak next, but they insisted Francis speak first.

“I have come here as a pilgrim of reconciliation, in the hope of accompanying you on your journey of peace,” the pope said. “It is a circuitous journey, yet one that can no longer be postponed.” Then, the pope, drawing attention to the presence of the archbishop and the moderator, whom he referred to as “two brothers,” said, “We present ourselves to you and to this people in the name of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.”

“We undertook this ecumenical pilgrimage of peace,” the pope continued, “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 that it has experienced.”

Pope Francis then alluded to the decades of war before the country reached independence on July 9, 2011, and the armed conflicts and years of fighting since, that has left no less than 400,000 dead. “Years of war and conflict seem never to end and, even recently, there have been bitter clashes,” he said. “The process of reconciliation seems stagnant and the promise of peace unfulfilled,” he said, before offering a prayer that “this protracted suffering may not be in vain.”

Pope Francis: “The process of reconciliation seems stagnant and the promise of peace unfulfilled.” 

The pope recalled that since independence the people had opted for the state to be a “republic.” This means “the state belongs to everyone; and consequently those entrusted with greater responsibilities, presiding over and governing it, have the duty to place themselves at the service of the common good,” he said. “There is always a temptation to use power for our own advantage,” he added, “The abundant resources with which God has blessed this land should not be restricted to a few, but recognized as the legacy of all, and plans for economic recovery should coincide with proposals for an equitable distribution of wealth.”

For Francis, this ecumenical pilgrimage of peace “is something rare,” he said, that “represents a change of direction, an opportunity for South Sudan to resume sailing in calm waters, taking up dialogue, without duplicity and opportunism.” He prayed that it may be for everyone “an occasion to revive hope” and that “each citizen understand that the time has come to stop being carried along by the tainted waters of hatred, tribalism, regionalism and ethnic differences.” He continued, “It is time to sail together towards the future!”

He emphasized the importance of involving the youth—74 percent of the population of South Sudan are under the age of 30—and involving women “in political life and decision-making processes.” He called for respect for women and said, “Anyone who commits an act of violence toward a woman commits it toward God.”

He praised the work of missionaries and humanitarian workers, asked the government to help their work and ensure their physical security, and expressed his closeness to all those who suffered from the recent flooding.

Archbishop Justin Welby: “We come to listen to the young people, and to tell leaders about their hopes for peace and opportunity.”

Pope Francis also called the people to engage in “the battle against corruption,” as he had done in Kinshasa. He denounced “the inequitable distribution of funds, secret schemes to get rich, patronage deals, lack of transparency,” and reminded them of “the need to combat poverty, which serves as the fertile soil in which hatred, divisions and violence take root,” and emphasized the pressing need to care for “the millions of displaced persons who live here.”

Above all, Pope Francis said, “there is a need to control the flow of weapons that, despite bans, continue to arrive in many countries in the area.” He urged the government to invest in the development of suitable healthcare policies, and to promote literacy and education.

Archbishop Welby said in his address that the three religious leaders had come “to encourage the church to remember its remarkable work historically in building peace and bringing people together.”

“We come to listen to the young people, and to tell leaders about their hopes for peace and opportunity,” he said. “We come to honor the women who have known such terrible suffering and yet have been the sign of the resurrection life.” Mirroring Francis’ bluntness, the archbishop said, “People in places near and far are becoming tired that more has not changed. That fatigue is mirrored in the faces of the people of South Sudan and in the words of many civil society organizations who faithfully, boldly, try to represent them in the face of strong opposition. When I remember the commitments made back in 2019, I am saddened that this is what I see and hear.”

Iain Greenshields, the Scottish church leader, then addressed the audience. “We need leaders and churches that really work for peace,” he said, expressing his hope, as the pope and the archbishop before him had, that the visit would encourage the country and its leaders on that path.

“I realize that some of what I have had to say may appear blunt and direct,” Pope Francis said at the conclusion of his address. “But please, know that this arises only from the affection and concern with which I follow the life of your country, together with my brothers with whom I have come here as a pilgrim of peace,” he said.

“God bless the Republic of South Sudan!”

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