KEY WEST, Florida – After today’s deadline for South Sudan to implement a peace agreement was again postponed, the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC), which unites representatives from all major Christian denominations in the country, including the Catholic Church, urged people not to lose hope.

One global figure obviously cheering for a happy outcome is Pope Francis, who, two days before the deadline, dangled the possibility of a visit to the battle-scarred nation next year.

On Sunday, the pontiff announced his desire to visit South Sudan in 2020, saying, “The South Sudanese people have suffered too much in these last years and awaits with great hope a better future, above all the definitive end to conflicts and a lasting peace.”

He urged leaders to work tirelessly for an “inclusive dialogue” and encouraged the international community not to neglect accompanying the nation on the path to national reconciliation, voicing his “special affection” for the nation.

For their part, representatives of the SSCC said Nov. 9 that as political solutions appear impossible, “The question on the minds of South Sudanese everywhere is, will our leaders through their actions demonstrate a genuine will for peace?”

The religious leaders insisted that the will for peace “is not measured only by deadlines and technical agreements,” but “it is a question of the heart and the political will.”

“The people of South Sudan,” they said, “have begged their leaders to find a peaceful way forward, to look beyond political interest, emotional turmoil and historic grievances, and to hold their duty towards the people of the country as a sacred calling.”

Just eight years old, South Sudan’s short history has been marred by a 3-year civil war and subsequent humanitarian crisis in which food shortages have soared, millions have been displaced and lack access to basic necessities.

Several attempts at a ceasefire failed until a deal was finally brokered in October 2018 and signed by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit and Vice-President Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon, who, for the past five years, have been the faces of two sides of a conflict fueled by corruption, tribalism and poverty.

The official deadline to implement the deal was May 12, but both sides backed a six-month extension as they continue to work out details. However, last week Kiir and opposition leader Machar agreed to postpone forming a coalition government for 100 days in order to resolve security and governance issues.

For the past three years, Francis has been a vocal supporter of peace efforts in South Sudan and on multiple occasions has invited South Sudan’s religious and political leaders to the Vatican.

In 2016 he met with South Sudan’s Catholic bishops at the Vatican and announced plans to visit the country with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in 2017, but security conditions prevented it.

Since then, he has shown continued interest. In February 2018, he called a day of prayer and fasting for South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; in 2018, he met with the country’s Catholic bishops again during a visit to Rome, when they met the pope and visited offices of the Roman Curia; and earlier this year, Francis hosted the South Sudanese president and opposition leader for a spiritual retreat at the Vatican, where he kissed their feet in pleading for peace.

In July, members of South Sudan’s National Pre-Transitional Committee, tasked with implementing an October 2018 peace agreement, traveled to Rome to continue discussions on how to implement the peace plan. They were hosted by the Sant’Egidio Community, one of Francis’s favorite so-called “new movements.”

In their Nov. 9 statement, the SSCC said the fact that a peace agreement was reached is proof of the willingness of both parties “to stop the unnecessary violence as a prerequisite for lasting peace, and it has resulted in a ceasefire,” allowing humanitarian aid to reach those in need.

However, they stressed that the journey to peace “is far from over. … The duty to fulfill obligations in the agreement remains more strongly than ever,” they said, adding that “the urgency of the situation and what is at stake must never be forgotten.”

Noting that the current “crossroads” pivots on security and border issues, the SSCC praised progress already made and urged leaders not only to focus on the politics, but the human lives at risk.

“It is critical that parties work together to lay the building blocks for an inclusive peace,” and to ensure that those who perpetrate violence against civilians “are held accountable,” they said.

Urging leaders to move forward with implementation of the peace agreement, the SSCC said that as a body of churches, they are united in their desire to help South Sudan’s political leaders guide the country and are committed to working together “to address the root causes of the conflict.”

Putting the delay in a positive light, they said the 100-day extension can serve “as an opportunity to dialogue and implement the unresolved issues in the agreement.”

“People of South Sudan, not withstanding all our challenges and pain …  let us be joyful in hope, patient in affliction and faithful in prayer,” they said, also encouraging citizens to turn their attention to those in need.

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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