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ROME – British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, a top papal aide, traveled to South Sudan right before Christmas, meeting with top civil and ecclesial leaders in a visit that could be setting the stage for the long-awaited visit of Pope Francis.

Speaking to Vatican News, the Vatican’s official information platform, Gallagher said, “There is no perfect time for any such visit,” and the possibility of a papal visit next year is being considered.

“We believe that there is great support for a visit. Though like all these things, there is never the perfect time – so we have to move forward in the whole process of discerning,” he said.

Gallagher, who serves as the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, visited South Sudan Dec. 21-23 in a visit many observers believe was to lay the groundwork for potential visit from Pope Francis himself, who has long desired to travel to the country in a bid to strengthen the peace process in place gripped by one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world.

Conflict has raged in South Sudan since shortly after its independence in 2011, with the newly formed government falling apart just two years later when South Sudanese President Salva Kiir ousted his Vice President, Riek Machar, in December 2013, accusing him of attempting to lead a coup.

The political conflict quickly turned ethnic, 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.

At least 400,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the violence thus far, and millions more displaced amid a worsening humanitarian crisis that has prompted numerous calls from international leaders and bodies for South Sudanese leaders to patch things up for the sake of their people.

Kiir and Machar agreed to a ceasefire in 2015, but it collapsed. They reached a new agreement in September 2018, but it has yet to be implemented due to what have proven to be unresolvable disputes over technicalities related to borders and security.

Pope Francis, who has closely followed South Sudan’s peace process, pledged in 2019 to visit the troubled nation alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Martin Fair, if the country’s leaders were able to bring the bloody conflict to an end.

In April 2019, the pope invited both Kiir and Machar to a retreat at the Vatican, where he made headlines by kissing their feet while pleading for peace. Welby and representatives from the Church of Scotland, which has a partnership with the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan and has played an active role in the peace process since 2015, also participated.

In his comments to Vatican News, Gallagher said the pope’s gesture during the 2019 retreat “got a lot of attention,” so the Vatican took advantage of that and has consistently encouraged South Sudan’s leaders to continue moving in this direction.

Last year, South Sudan’s peace process took a significant step forward when the country’s main opposition group announced their adherence to the 2018 peace agreement, but over a year later, the wrinkles are still being ironed out.

A joint trip of Francis, Welby, and Fair for a time seemed likely in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic thwarted those plans, so Pope Francis sent South Sudan’s leaders a letter last Christmas urging them to make greater efforts in the peace process, and voicing his desire to visit as soon as possible.

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According to a Dec. 27 article in Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, during his recent visit Gallagher held several meetings with local clergy and religious, as well as top civil leaders and representatives of other Christian churches.

After his arrival Dec. 21, Gallagher was met at the airport by Archbishop Hubertus Matheus Maria van Megen, the Vatican’s envoy to South Sudan, lives in Nairobi; Archbishop Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla of Juba; and by the bishops of Malakal and Wau, and others.

He then held a private meeting at the airport with South Sudanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mayiik Ayii Deng.

Later that afternoon, Gallagher met with representatives of the Anglican Church and several diplomats, who discussed the current political, economic, and social situation of South Sudan. He later met with the bishops of South Sudan, who thanked Pope Francis for his closeness and renewed their commitment to work for the betterment of the country.

On Dec. 22 Gallagher, together with his own delegation and a delegation from the Lambeth Palace, met with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir at his residence, where they discussed the Holy See’s commitment to the peace process in South Sudan and hypothesized a potential joint visit from the pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in 2022.

Kiir was reportedly enthusiastic about the idea and reiterated his government’s commitment to implementing the peace process and thanked both Pope Francis and Welby for their efforts to promote peace and unity in South Sudan.

Kiir specifically offered his thanks to Pope Francis for humanitarian aid the Vatican provided in light of recent flooding in South Sudan, which has particularly impacted the Diocese of Malakal.

Later that afternoon Gallagher met with representatives of the Ecumenical Council of Churches of South Sudan and with representatives of civil society, who discussed the role that Christian churches play in the national reconciliation process.

On Dec. 23, Gallagher celebrated Mass in the cathedral of Juba which was attended by the Vice President of South Sudan, Taban Deng Gai, where he faithful to live the mystery of Christmas in the constant search for unity, charity, and forgiveness.

After Mass, Gallagher met clergy and religious in South Sudan before visiting the St. Claire House for Children orphanage in Juba, where he announced a gift from the pope. He then returned to the Vatican.

Speaking to Vatican News, Gallagher said they decided to make the visit despite the coronavirus pandemic because no time is ideal, so “We decided we should come now.”

“We have come with the objective of listening to the people; listening to the leaders, both political and Church leaders, in order to see what the situation here is and what contribution can both the Holy See, in particular, Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, make in moving this process forward,” he said.

Gallagher he was “optimistic” about Africa despite the challenges the continent faces related to armed conflict and poverty.

“I am a great believer in Africa. I am optimistic about Africa,” he said. “I understand the many problems and challenges, but I think, in the end, there is an energy and an optimism. There is talent here which will take the people of Africa forward, including the people of South Sudan.”

Gallagher called South Sudan a country “of great faith, with a great Christian tradition,” saying Christmas is a time “when indeed Jesus Christ, in his frailty, comes among us. God chooses humanity. Therefore, there is a great message of hope, a message of perseverance.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen