Three things to know about Pope Francis’ visit to South Sudan
Pope Francis will make a long-awaited visit to South Sudan, the world’s newest country, alongside other prominent Christian leaders from Feb. 3 until Feb. 5.
The visit has its origins in one evocative moment. On April 11, 2019, Pope Francis, together with the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury; and Very Rev. John Chalmers, the former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, hosted a “spiritual retreat” at the Vatican for leaders of rival factions of South Sudan’s government. Pope Francis asked them to find a way to make peace among themselves and keep their disagreements behind closed doors.
Then, shocking everyone, the pope got down on his knees before the government and faction leaders and kissed their feet, begging them to build a lasting peace together in their country. With this unexpected gesture of humility, the pope showed his profound concern with reaching a sustainable peace in South Sudan that could allow the country to build a more stable future.
A 40-Years War
The contemporary tension in South Sudan has a complex and disturbing history.
Before 2011, the nation now called South Sudan was part of Sudan, then the largest country in Africa. Sudan had been embroiled in one of the worst civil wars in African history.
Before 2011, the nation now called South Sudan was part of Sudan, then the largest country in Africa. Sudan had been embroiled in one of the worst civil wars in African history—nearly 40 years of war over a 50-year span—between the government in Khartoum in the north, predominantly Arab and Muslim, and rebels in the south, predominantly African and approximately 60 percent Christian.
In 2005, the two sides reached an agreement to end the fighting and signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Naivasha, Kenya. As part of that agreement, six years later in 2011, citizens of southern Sudan voted in a referendum that officially approved the creation of a separate country.
Although hopes were high for a lasting peace in the new nation, several factors set the conditions for future conflict. South Sudan is extremely diverse, with 64 major ethnic groups. There are traditional tensions among many of these communities, particularly between the Dinka, the largest ethnic group, and the Nuer, the second-largest.
Historically the region has not been able to rely on strong, central governance, and conflict has been a common means of resolving intercommunal tensions and rivalries.
It was anticipated that South Sudan could become viable economically because of its substantial oil resources. Since independence, however, rival ethnic and political leaders in South Sudan have been siphoning off oil money for themselves, leaving little economic benefit for the South Sudanese people. Political power and money from oil are closely associated.
Shocking everyone, Pope Francis got down on his knees before the government and faction leaders and kissed their feet, begging them to build a lasting peace together in South Sudan.
After independence in 2011, Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group, became president, and Riek Machar, a Nuer, became vice president—the composition of the government intended to be representative of the country’s diversity. But infighting between Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar quickly plunged the country into civil war on Dec. 15, 2013, when street fighting broke out in Juba, the South Sudanese capital.
Though the fighting was interrupted by short-lived ceasefire agreements, over the next five years the South Sudanese people experienced horrific suffering. It is believed that about 400,000 people died. Because data is limited and the government has failed to undertake a serious effort to count the number of lives lost, the true number remains uncertain. Additionally, four million South Sudanese people became refugees or internally displaced.
In 2018 Mr. Machar and Mr. Kiir signed a peace agreement that ended the worst of the fighting and set up a transitional government. Although the situation has improved and many important actors have signed the agreement, local antagonists in some parts of South Sudan still have not signed on to the truce, and inter-ethnic and intercommunal violence continues.
In one tragic example, on Aug. 16, 2021, a group of Catholic sisters were ambushed while on the highway returning to Juba. Two of them, Sisters Mary Daniel Abut and Regina Roba, were killed. Mr. Kiir blamed the violence on the groups that had not signed on to the peace agreement.
Pope Francis’ visit
Pope Francis has three major aims for his brief visit to Juba.
Promoting peace as a means to alleviate poverty. Francis’ focus on peacemaking is also a call to remember the poor who suffer from war. The civil conflict in South Sudan, in addition to leading to the deaths of thousands of people, created a culture of displacement, as many thousands have been unable to remain in their homes or towns.
South Sudan could become viable economically because of its substantial oil resources. Since independence, however, rival ethnic and political leaders in South Sudan have been siphoning off oil money for themselves.
A high level of food insecurity has been another pernicious result of the violence. South Sudan has extremely fertile land, but people are unable to grow crops or raise livestock when they are forced to flee or their villages are raided.
The pope recognizes this cycle of violence and hopelessness. “If you are poor and you are in a situation of conflict, your life is really made miserable by the violence, by the terrible effect on your own body, by the lack of movement, by the lack of food,” said Andrea Bartoli, president of the Sant’Egidio Foundation for Peace and Dialogue. Dr. Bartoli, along with others in the Community of Sant’Egidio, has been heavily involved with the peace process in South Sudan.
“Pope Francis is saying, we need to reinvent the future,” he said. “And the best way to do that is to really take the life of the poor seriously. And peace is what changes the life of the poor [most] dramatically.”
By continuing to encourage a process of peace, the pope hopes that the horrible effects of war will subside and the average citizens of South Sudan will have a real chance to build lives for themselves.
Building on the spiritual retreat in 2019. This link between war and poverty is key to understanding the second reason for the pope’s visit: It continues a process he began with his famous gesture at the Vatican in 2019. Speaking to South Sudan’s leaders then, the pope said, “There will be disagreements among you, but may they take place ‘in the office’ while, in front of your people, you hold hands; in this way, you will be transformed from simple citizens to fathers of the nation.”
It was then that the pope got to his knees and kissed the shoes of the leaders, including Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar.
“He was trying to show that leaders have to be servants,” said Joann Rachel, the advocacy coordinator for the South Sudan Council of Churches, one of the leading voices for peace in the country. “He [was] showing the humility of Jesus, and Jesus was a leader, and they’re leaders. So they need to be humble and they need to serve the people. So I think it was very symbolic at that moment.”
South Sudan has extremely fertile land, but people are unable to grow crops or raise livestock when they are forced to flee or their villages are raided.
The pope’s in-person visit to the country is a complement to that spiritual retreat. Then, Ms. Rachel said, the pope “met the leaders, and now he’s coming to the people.”
“I feel like my faith is going to be strengthened as a Catholic,” she said. “And at least it will bring some hope to the people.”
Standing together in an ecumenical effort. A final component of the pope’s visit is its role as an expression of Chrisitan unity. In fact, it is not a “papal visit” at all but an “ecumenical pilgrimage.”
There is a strong relationship between the pope, the archbishop of Canterbury—the initial retreat at the Vatican was his idea—and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rev. Iain Greenshields, and this bond has led to the decision to make the pilgrimage together. They are all deeply committed to working together for peace in South Sudan.
The relationship between these three leaders reflects the reality on the ground in South Sudan, where the Christian churches are united in pursuing peace. Local church communities can be very close with each other. One Jesuit priest who spoke with America explained that in South Sudan, Catholics and Episcopalians, the two largest denominations, often attend services or community gatherings at each other’s churches.
By making the trip together with other Christian leaders, and by continuing to advocate for peace, Pope Francis is adopting the spirit of these South Sudanese Christians.
What Outcome Should We Expect?
So why visit South Sudan? The pope is no politician. He has no political leverage over South Sudan’s leaders like other multilateral players do; no development funds to hold up or oil buys to freeze in order to press for better behavior. But he can host a retreat for them and beg for peace.
The reward for such efforts can be much more than spiritual. The retreat in 2019 had real, practical consequences for peace in South Sudan. The pope’s desperate gesture at the Vatican paved the way for the Community of Sant’Egidio to begin its Rome Initiative. And that political dialogue brought together the government of South Sudan and warring groups that had not signed the 2018 peace agreement, building a more comprehensive peace.
So while the focus of this upcoming trip is pastoral, we can still expect some political dividends. Pope Francis is coming to encourage the people of South Sudan to protect their hard-won peace, hoping that his presence will shore up the political processes that are so badly needed to secure this young nation’s future.