Pope kisses feet of South Sudan’s leaders to encourage peace

Pope kisses feet of South Sudan leaders

The President of the Republic of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, and four of the five designated vice-presidents, including the former rebel leader Riek Machar, were among the guests.

Under a recently signed but fragile peace deal, a new Transitional Government of National Unity is due to be formed next month led by President Kiir, with opposition leader Riek Machar as his deputy.

After the retreat, the pope kissed the South Sudanese leaders' feet, saying: "Your people is awaiting your return to your country, the reconciliation of all its members, and a new era of peace and prosperity for all".

The pope said this meeting was "something altogether special and in some sense unique", as it was neither an ordinary bilateral nor diplomatic meeting between the pope and heads of state, nor an ecumenical initiative involving representatives of different Christian communities. Two years later, South Sudan plunged into its own intermittent civil war, with some 400,000 people killed and almost a third of the population uprooted.

South Sudan President Salva Kiir addresses the crowds at the John Garang's Mausoleum in Juba, South Sudan on October 31, 2018.

The dramatic gesture happened during a spiritual retreat by the two men at the Vatican and came only hours after the military in neighbouring Sudan ousted its longtime leader, President Omar al-Bashir, after 30 years of authoritarian rule.

Despite a peace agreement signed last summer (News, 14 September 2018), millions of civilians are bearing the brunt of the civil conflict, which is estimated to have killed almost 190,000 people.

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The South Sudanese leaders did not make any statement in response to the pope's plea for peace.

The Vatican has for years sought to foster peace in South Sudan, and it saw an opportunity in the latest armistice.

Many people around the world have joined in prayer for the retreat in the hope that, as a spokesperson for the Archbishop of Canterbury said, it "could be a step on a journey" and might "build confidence and trust between parties and give them spiritual nourishment". "Resolve your problems", said the Pope.

About 400,000 people died and more than a third of the country's 12 million people were uprooted, sparking Africa's worst refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Pope Francis confirmed his "desire and hope" to visit South Sudan soon, adding that this future visit would be together with Welby and and the former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Welby had proposed the retreat to the pope.

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