The leaders of South Sudan never thought they would be in such a situation when they visited the Vatican at the invitation of Pope Francis and Dr Justin Welby, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, on April 10 and 11, 2019.
Peace negotiations in South Sudan have been stalled for months. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope invited them to meet for a spiritual retreat in Rome. President Salva Kiir, Vice President Riek Machar and First Vice President Taban Deng Gai agreed.
South Sudan: new peace agreement under the aegis of Sant’Egidio
On April 11, they find themselves side by side, in dark costumes, facing Pope Francis. Salva Kiir and Riek Machar hate each other. Since December 2013, they have dragged their country into a terrible civil war, making South Sudan one of the most devastated countries since the early 2010s along with Syria and Yemen.
The Pope’s kiss
The two enemy brothers are Christians like the majority of South Sudanese. And in this country, the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS) and the Catholic Church are great institutions that are still credible. Churches that have played the role of mediators since the beginning of the conflict: to the point, therefore, of seeing these two ruthless political leaders gathered in the Pope’s residence, the Maison Sainte-Marthe.
Beside them is also Rebecca Garang, widow of John Garang, the hero of the war of independence against Sudan. The Pope addressed these few words to them: “I say it to you as to brothers: remain in peace! I ask you from the bottom of my heart! “
And to everyone’s surprise, he approached, he knelt in turn in front of Riek Machar, Salva Kiir and Taban Deng Gai to kiss their feet. The three leaders are stunned and helpless. Once back in Juba, the Catholic Salva Kiir declares to have been overwhelmed by the pope’s gesture: “It was a blessing, and it can become a curse if we play with the lives of our people. ” And indeed, the peace negotiations are relaunched, some progress is made, without resolving all the issues.
South Sudan Council of Churches
Since the start of the war, the Christian Churches have continued their mediation and have never stopped condemning war and violence. Seven churches have come together in the South Sudan Council of Churches to encourage and foster dialogue among all: the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan, Africa Inland Church, The Pentecostal Church of Sudan, Evangelical Presbyterian Church of South Sudan, and Inner Church of Sudan.
On the side of Rome, Pope Francis is still expressing his concern for peace. On December 24, 2020, he once again joined forces with Justin Welby to congratulate the leaders of this country on the progress made since their meeting in April 2019, although they admit that a lot remains to be done. And to recall that they have every intention of going to South Sudan one day to “To be the witnesses of a changed country”.
If the Christian Churches try to play a peacemaking role, they do not escape violence and community conflicts, as evidenced by the attack, on April 26, of which Mgr Christian Carlassare, the new bishop of Rumbek, was a victim. (in the center of the country). After his nomination was rejected by some, gunmen opened fire on his home, injuring his legs. About 40 people were arrested in this case, including Father John Mathiang, diocesan administrator who had welcomed him on April 16.