JUBA – Pope Francis made a final appeal for peace in South Sudan on Sunday as he celebrated Mass before tens of thousands of people to close out an unusual mission by Christian religious leaders to nudge forward the country’s recovery from civil war.
On the last day of his African pilgrimage, Francis begged South Sudanese people to lay down their weapons and forgive one another, presiding over Mass at the country’s monument to independence hero John Garang before an estimated 100,000 people, including the country's political leadership.
“Even if our hearts bleed for the wrongs we have suffered, let us refuse, once and for all, to repay evil with evil,” Francis said. “Let us accept one another and love one another with sincerity and generosity, as God loves us.”
His message aimed to revive hopes in the world's youngest country, which gained independence from the majority Muslim Sudan in 2011 but has been beset by civil war and conflict.
President Salva Kiir, his longtime rival Riek Machar and other opposition groups signed a peace agreement in 2018, but the deal’s provisions, including the formation of a national unified army, remain largely unimplemented and fighting has continued to flare.
“We have suffered a lot,” said Natalima Andrea, a 66-year-old mother of seven who wiped a tear from her eye as she waited for Francis' Mass to begin. “We need a permanent peace now and I hope these prayers would yield to lasting peace.”
The Vatican said more than 100,000 people attended the service, filling the field of the Garang Mausoleum and surrounding roads.
In a bid to spur the process along, Francis was joined on the novel ecumenical peace mission by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields. The aim of the Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian leaders was to push Kiir and Machar to recommit themselves to the 2018 deal.
Welby and Greenshields joined Francis on the altar at Mass on Sunday and were to accompany him on the flight back to Rome.
The three also aimed to put a global spotlight on the plight of the country, oil-rich and yet one of the world's poorest, where humanitarian needs are soaring for the 2 million people who have been displaced by continued clashes and years of above-average flooding. Watchdogs' allegations of corruption are also widespread; some South Sudanese upon the pope's arrival noted that his modest vehicle was overshadowed by local officials' luxury ones.
During the three-day visit, Francis, Welby and Greenshields sought to draw attention to the plight of South Sudan's most vulnerable people, the women and children who have borne the brunt of displacement and make up the majority of people living in temporary camps.
They raised in particular the plight of women in a country where sexual violence is rampant, child brides are common and the maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world.
“If we look at South Sudan, I would just use one word: South Sudan is a patriarchal country," said Elizabeth Nyibol Malou, a lecturer in economics at the Catholic University of South Sudan. Citing cultural norms in which wealth is passed down to male heirs and women are married young for dowries, she said it is a constant struggle to keep girls in school.
Women in South Sudan, she said, "are tired. They are struggling. They are frustrated, and they’re stuck.”
Edmund Yakani, executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, said the visit of the three leaders was an important push to the peace process.
He called it a “critical exposure of our political leaders towards their personal responsibility for making peace and stability prevail in the country.”
Trisha Thomas contributed.
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