ROME – A small delegation of Catholic bishops in South Sudan paid a courtesy visit to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit last week to request a seat at the table in formal peace negotiations – a request they say was met with a positive response.

In an article published on the formal communications platform for AMECEA, the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa, Archbishop Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla of Juba said that “Since the signing of revitalized peace agreement, we as bishops of South Sudan had not paid visit to the president and we thought it better to do so and assure him of our support towards the process of peace implementation.”

“We asked him to include some religious leaders in the peace negotiation process since none of us are involved and it is necessary [that] we too take part,” Ameyu said.

Ameyu was joined by Bishop Stephen Nyodho Ador Majwok of the Malakal Diocese, and Bishop Emeritus Paride Taban of the Diocese of Torit.

According to Ameyu, the reason for their meeting with Kiir was a solidarity visit to discuss the implementation of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS).

South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, just celebrated the 10th anniversary of its independence in July 2011 – an event which promised a new future to people ravaged by war. Instead, the country has spent the past decade plagued by war, corruption, violence, and a staggering humanitarian crisis.

Internal government power struggles caused war to break out in 2013, which so far has claimed the lives of some 400,000 people, with roughly eight million people reliant on aid, many of whom are displaced.

Numerous ceasefire agreements have fallen through, however, in 2018 a peace agreement was drafted that has largely held.

As part of that accord, warring parties formed a coalition government last year, with Kiir and Riek Machar, the First Vice President of South Sudan and the opposition leader, making yet another attempt to run the country together.

In a significant move in South Sudan’s tumultuous peace process, the country’s main opposition group which had previously rejected 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 the implementation, largely related to disagreements over technicalities such as the number of states the country will have and how to handle security.

The Catholic Church has been an active player since conflict broke out, often seeking to act as a mediator and peace broker amid political tensions. The Italian Community of Sant’Egidio, the pope’s favorite of the so-called new movements, has been a key player in the negotiation process, hosting numerous retreats and meetings among the involved parties in Rome to discuss next steps.

Bishops from South Sudan have visited Rome in the past to discuss the status of the country and its peace process with the pope, but they have never come as part of the delegation for the discussions organized with political leaders by Sant’Egidio.

Pope Francis himself has followed the situation closely, making numerous public appeals for peace and even hosting days of prayer and fasting for an end to the nation’s ongoing conflict.

In April 2019, Francis invited both Kiir and Riek 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 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Reverend Martin 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.

Francis, Welby, and Fair wrote a joint letter to South Sudan’s leaders in December 2020 encouraging them to make faster progress in implementing the peace deal.

However, with negotiations still moving at a snail’s pace as different sides struggling to agree on terms, there has been increased pressure over the past few months for both Kiir and Riek to possibly step down amid what many feel are repeated failed attempts to finally end the conflict.

In a July 9 letter for the 10th anniversary of South Sudan’s independence, Francis, Fair, and Welby praised the small signs of progress that have been made but stressed that “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.”

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In their meeting with Kiir, Ameyu, Nyodho, and Taban stressed the importance of the Rome talks hosted by Sant’Egidio, which include the participation from the government and several opposition groups.

Sant’Egidio recently hosted another set of discussions between the various groups from July 15-18 in Rome, with the next meeting expected to focus on important issues still being deliberated, such as power sharing.

In his remarks, Ameyu argued that religious leaders ought to be involved in peace and reconciliation efforts among conflicting parties, saying, “Nothing is as good as having peace and guns be silenced.”

“When there is peace, people have the opportunity to live normally and stay happily,” he said, adding, “the opposition should also seek for the common good of the people of South Sudan who have suffered for years.”

“It will be good for the government to continue implementing peace even if it is as slow as tortoise, it will have some positive impact,” he said.

Ameyu said Kiir greatly appreciated the bishops’ visit as well as their request to participate in negotiations, saying he is hopeful that religious leaders will be part of the next set of Rome talks, which will likely be organized after the summer vacation period is over.

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