ROME – When leaders in South Sudan missed a second deadline to implement a peace agreement and form a transitional government in November, Pope Francis stepped in saying he would pay the troubled country a visit if they were able to end the country’s nearly 7-year conflict.

Last weekend, on Feb. 22, South Sudanese leaders took a giant step toward making the papal visit a reality when President Salva Kiir swore in rebel leader Riek Machar as the country’s “first vice president” (the constitution calls for five vice-presidents), effectively sealing a peace agreement reached in 2018 designed to end six years of civil war.

According to Paolo Impagliazzo, who was present at the ceremony in his capacity as secretary general and South Sudan delegate for the Rome-based Sant’Egidio community, Catholics in the country “are really waiting for the visit of Pope Francis.”

The pope has taken a keen interest in South Sudan, appealing often for peace and organizing days of prayer to end the conflict. In April 2019 he invited both the South Sudanese president and the opposition leader to a retreat at the Vatican, where he made headlines by kissing their feet while pleading for peace.

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“Politically, I think (the fact) that we now have vice presidents is a step forward in the formation of the transitional government. So the situation is better than before,” he said, noting how in their speeches at the swearing-in both Kiir and Machar thanked Pope Francis and Sant’Egidio, the pope’s favorite of the so-called “new movements,” for their role in mediating the peace deal.

“We have evidently listened to him (and) we are proud to report to him that we have also reconciled,” Kiir said, while Machar shared that they were “greatly humbled and challenged” by the pontiff and his insistence on peace.

Impagliazzo said he took Kiir’s words as expressing a desire for the pope to visit. Though there is currently no timeline, Impagliazzo said he believes the trip will happen, assuming the government is formed and once the new Archbishop of Juba, Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla, is installed.

“Then, I think the visit of Pope Francis can also help the people of South Sudan to find an inclusive way of living together,” he said.

Conflict erupted in South Sudan shortly after it gained independence in 2011. Just two years later, Kiir ousted Machar in December 2013, accusing him of attempting to lead a coup to overthrow the government. What began as a political dispute quickly turned into an ethnic conflict, with South Sudan’s two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer – to which the leaders belong –  targeting one another as violence broke out.

A peace agreement was brokered in September 2018 stipulating that South Sudan’s two vice presidents would formally take office together last spring, sharing responsibility. The formation of the government was delayed until Nov. 12. However, days before the deadline the leaders announced a further delay, with a new deadline set for Feb. 22, which was narrowly achieved.

So far, an estimated 400,000 people have been killed in the violence and millions more displaced amid a worsening humanitarian crisis. Hours before the Feb. 22 deal was struck, the United Nations had published a report accusing both government and opposition forces of intentionally starving civilians as they grapple for power.

According to Impagliazzo, the situation “is much better” than it was when he first visited South Sudan in 2018.

He said the deal was reached much faster than expected, saying the deciding factor was Kiir’s decision to cut the number of states from 32 to 10, a move cheered by most but not all, as there are now many officials left without a position.

Problems could also arise in the merging of the states, as the previous 32 were mostly divided along ethnic lines. However, Impagliazzo said this could still be eventually changed by the National Assembly meets.

Security, power sharing and the merging of both government and opposition forces into the country’s military are all still issues that need to be dealt with, but leaders have agreed to iron out the wrinkles as they go along.

In his view, Impagliazzo said ultimately time will tell, but he believes the deal will hold.

“First we have to wait for the formation of the government. Then we have to see if the hardliners of the government will end the government or not. We have to understand it. When we will know the names of the ministers, we can understand the situation a little better,” he said.

Another issue that will have to be dealt with immediately, he said, is the humanitarian crisis.

During Saturday’s swearing-in ceremony, Kiir specifically asked the United Nations to step in, providing funding to help refugees and displaced families return home.

“Many parts of the country are empty,” Impagliazzo said, adding that the idea is to help people return home, but “they have to see if their houses are still free or if they are occupied by someone else. So, it will take a bit. And it will happen only with the help of the international organizations.”

“They lack everything, there is nothing for them,” he said, “so the support of the international community welcoming back the refugees is very, very important.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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