The organizers of Pope Francis’ trip to Juba must traverse a perilous situation.
In 2019, Pope Francis made a stunning entrance into the South Sudanese peace process by kissing the country’s leaders’ feet.
The trip he’s making to Juba with the Archbishop of Canterbury will be less political, but it might help speed up talks between the government and rebel factions who have yet to sign on to the 2018 peace accord.
British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, a prominent papal adviser, flew to South Sudan just before Christmas, meeting with top civil and religious officials in a trip that might pave the way for Pope Francis’ long-awaited visit.
Gallagher told the reporters, “There is no ideal timing for any such visit,” and a pope visit next year is being examined.
“We feel there is widespread support for a visit.” “However, there is never a perfect moment for anything – so we have to go on in the entire process of discernment,” he remarked.
Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, visited South Sudan from December 21 to 23, many observers believe to lay the groundwork for a potential visit from Pope Francis himself, who has long desired to visit the country in order to strengthen the peace process in a country gripped by one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.
South Sudan has been at war since its independence in 2011, with the newly established government coming apart barely two years later, when South Sudanese President Salva Kiir removed his Vice President, Riek Machar, in December 2013, accusing him of trying to organize a coup.
The political battle swiftly devolved into an ethnic war, with South Sudan’s two major ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer – of which the leaders are members – attacking one another as violence erupted.
At least 400,000 people are thought to have been murdered in the conflict so far, with millions more displaced as a result of a rising humanitarian catastrophe, prompting frequent demands from foreign leaders and organizations for South Sudanese officials to mend fences for the sake of their people.
Kiir and Machar agreed to a cease-fire in 2015, but it was broken. They negotiated a new deal in September 2018, but it has yet to be implemented owing to unresolvable issues on border and security details.
Pope Francis, who has closely followed South Sudan’s peace process, promised to visit the troubled country in 2019 alongside Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Martin Fair if the country’s leaders were able to end the bloody conflict.
The pope invited both Kiir and Machar to a retreat at the Vatican in April 2019, where he made headlines by kissing their feet and praying for peace. Welby was joined by delegates from the Church of Scotland, which has a connection with the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan and has been participating in the peace process since 2015.