ROME – In a joint letter to the leaders of South Sudan for the 10th anniversary of its independence, Pope Francis and two other faith leaders encouraged the country to redouble their efforts to attain peace, even at the cost of “personal sacrifice.”

In a July 9 letter signed by Pope Francis as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Reverend Martin Fair, the faith leaders congratulated South Sudan, saying the milestone anniversary “calls to mind your past struggles and points with hope to the future.”

“Your nation is blessed with immense potential, and we encourage you to make even greater efforts to enable your people to enjoy the full fruits of independence,” they said.

This letter follows a similar note sent to South Sudanese leaders by the three faith leaders just before Christmas 2020, in which they urged leaders to exert more effort in the quest for peace and reminding them of their commitment to achieve peace.

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Referring to the Christmas letter, Francis, Welby, and Fair noted that on that occasion, they had voiced hope that South Sudan’s leaders would “experience greater trust among yourselves and be more generous in service to your people.”

“Since then, we have been glad to see some small progress,” they said, yet “Sadly, your people continue to live in fear and uncertainty, and lack confidence that their nation can indeed deliver the ‘justice, liberty and prosperity’ celebrated in your national anthem.”

“Much more needs to be done in South Sudan to shape a nation that reflects God’s kingdom, in which the dignity of all is respected and all are reconciled,” they said, emphasizing that “This may require personal sacrifice from you as leaders.”

The example of leadership set by Christ “shows this powerfully,” they said, assuring South Sudan’s leaders that “we stand alongside you as you look to the future and seek to discern afresh how best to serve all the people of South Sudan.”

The letter comes as South Sudan celebrates the 10th anniversary of becoming the youngest nation in the world when it formally seceded from Sudan July 9, 2011.

Yet the letter also comes as there is increased pressure on both South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, the First Vice President of South Sudan and the opposition leader, to possibly step down amid what many feel are repeated failed attempts to end the violent conflict that has gripped the country for most of its brief existence and which has left thousands dead and millions displaced.

When South Sudan first gained independence in 2011, hopes were high and the new country’s prospects seemed bright, yet 10 years later, the nation is ravaged by conflict, corruption, and a deteriorating humanitarian crisis.

Shortly after Kiir was elected and named Machar as his deputy, rifts emerged within the government, with the two vying for power. In 2013, just two years after South Sudan’s independence, Kiir ousted Machar and the entire cabinet, accusing Machar of attempting to lead a coup to overthrow the government.

Five months later, civil war erupted and numerous attempts to quell the violence through ceasefire agreements have failed, as did an initial power-sharing agreement brokered in 2015, which dissolved and ended with Machar fleeing the country on foot when violent clashes erupted in the nation’s capital of Juba in 2016.

A second peace agreement drafted in 2018 has largely held. As part of that accord, warring parties formed a coalition government last year, with Kiir and Machar making yet another attempt to run the country together.

In a significant move in South Sudan’s peace process, the country’s main opposition group which had not adhered to the peace agreement in November announced their adherence to it, raising hopes that the agreement might finally be fully implemented.

There have been numerous delays in implementing the deal, largely due to disagreements over technicalities such as the number of states the country will have and how to handle security.

In total, around 400,000 have been killed since conflict first erupted in 2013, and some eight million people are reliant on aid.

Pope Francis has made numerous appeals to South Sudanese leaders to forgive old wounds and put the good of the nation and of the people before their own interests.

In April 2019, the pontiff 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.

Pope Francis has said he would visit the troubled country alongside Welby and Fair if the country’s leaders were able to bring the 7-year conflict to an end. A joint trip of the three seemed likely for 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic thwarted those plans.

In their letter, the three faith leaders voiced hope that the promises made during the 2019 retreat “will shape your actions, so that it will become possible for us to visit and celebrate with you and your people in person, honoring your contributions to a nation that fulfils the hopes of July 9, 2011.”

The South Sudan Council of Churches also issued a statement for the anniversary, saying there is “a lack of political will” to implement the 2018 peace agreement, but that there is still hope that the optimism of 10 years ago “can still be rekindled.”

They asked that the second decade of South Sudan’s independence be “a period of a new beginning of peace, justice, freedom, forgiveness, reconciliation and prosperity for all our people.”

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