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ROME – Expectations are high in South Sudan after the recent announcement that Pope Francis is scheduled to make his long-awaited visit to the country in July, bringing what many hope will be a message of comfort and also a fresh boost to the national peace process.
Speaking to Crux, Irish Sister Orla Treacy said that the general feeling of people in South Sudan right now “is absolute joy. It’s fantastic, they are thrilled, they are delighted…it’s a huge blessing for the country.”
A member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as the Loreto sisters, Treacy leads the Loreto Rumbek Mission in Maker Kuei, South Sudan, where for the past 16 years she has overseen a secondary boarding school for girls, a co-educational primary school and a women and children’s healthcare facility.
Last week the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will visit South Sudan July 5-7 as part of a broader trip to Africa that will also include a four-day stop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In South Sudan, the pope will be joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Martin Fair, in an ecumenical appeal for peace.
“It’s certainly a long wait,” Treacy said, noting that her school compound in Rumbek has been planning to meet the pope since 2018, “and we’ve been disappointed so many times.”
This trip, she said, “is something we have wanted and waited for, and I think from the leaders down to the young people, this is really something fantastic for us.”
Though not everyone knows who the pope is, “they would know the importance of the church leader, of the pope, and for a big man like him to grace us with a visit. That’s hugely important for all of us in South Sudan,” she said.
Pope Francis’s visit to South Sudan was delayed largely due to the security situation on the ground, and the failure of government and opposition leaders to implement a 2018 peace agreement.
Speaking to Crux, Paolo Impagliazzo, secretary general of the Sant’Egidio Community, which is dedicated to social projects and which has long aided in peace negotiations in South Sudan, said he doesn’t know why the pope chose to come now, but the visit is needed.
“The peace agreement is being realized with great slowness in the country, but I believe that the pope also has the will to make a pastoral visit, as well as a political visit,” Impagliazzo said, voicing his conviction that “the people of South Sudan need to be comforted.”
“Peace and stability still haven’t arrived in the country, there is still violence,” but the pope’s visit along with Welby and Fair “can certainly be a sign of closeness to the South Sudanese people who are waiting to be encouraged, supported, and consoled,” he said.
Conflict broke out in South Sudan shortly after it gained independence in 2011. The country’s newly formed government collapsed two years later when South Sudanese President Salva Kiir ousted his Vice President, Riek Machar, for allegedly attempting to lead a coup.
The conflict quickly turned ethnic, and violence spiraled out of control. So far, more than 400,000 people are estimated to have died in the fighting, and millions more have been displaced. The conflict has also resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis that has prompted international leaders to pressure South Sudanese leaders to resolve the situation and bring an end to the bloodshed.
An initial ceasefire agreed to by Kiir and Machar in 2015 collapsed, and the two reached a new agreement in September 2018 that has largely held, but it has yet to be fully implemented due to what have proven to be unresolvable disputes over technicalities related to borders and security.
Sant’Egidio has been an active player in negotiations for peace in South Sudan, creating a project called the Rome Initiative, where leaders of South Sudan’s government and the main opposition groups that are not part of the agreement have come together in Rome at least once a year to discuss the peace process and the implementation of the 2018 accord.
Two stipulations of the agreement are that elections be held in 2023, and that a unified army be formed uniting military forces of both the government and the opposition.
Elections, the first since South Sudan’s independence, were initially scheduled for July 2015, but were unable to take place due to the fighting.
Some observers have voiced skepticism that the elections will actually take place next year due to a failure to implement key aspects of the peace deal, including the unification of armies, the repatriation of refugees and displaced peoples, a population consensus, and the drafting of a permanent constitution.
Impagliazzo said the fact that a unified army has still not been formed could cause problems during the elections, but he said there is also a strong desire amongst the country’s leaders “to rebuild the fabric of peaceful coexistence in South Sudan.”
“Unfortunately, throughout the years and during the civil wars that came right after independence, it’s a fragmented fabric. There are conflicts between different groups due to their ethnic background, but also their political adherence,” and tensions still exist, he said.
Just one example of the tensions that are still present among members of different ethnicities is the shooting last April of the bishop-elect of Rumbek, Christian Carlassare, who was shot in the legs by two armed gunmen who broke into his residence in the middle of the night, shortly before his episcopal ordination.
In terms of Pope Francis’s own advocacy for peace in South Sudan, Treacy said his role has been “hugely important,” most notably during a 2019 retreat for South Sudanese government and opposition leaders at the Vatican when he knelt on the ground and kissed their feet asking for peace.
“In the South Sudan culture, when your elders talk to you and advise you, even when you are small children, you will listen to your elders,” and with the pope, “it’s not just him as an elder talking, but he’s representing a huge body of people talking. That has a huge impact,” she said.
Referring to the pope’s 2019 gesture, Treacy said it’s impossible to walk away from something like that untouched, “and I know our leaders were not untouched, they were touched by that and deeply affected by that.”
These types of gestures are highly symbolic in South Sudanese culture, she said, noting that “Big people don’t bend down, they don’t kneel. So, to see that as a symbol of our Christian message, of what the Christian message of peace and reconciliation is, and as the person of Christ, that is huge.”
Treacy voiced hope that Pope Francis, while currently scheduled to visit only the South Sudanese capital of Juba during his two-day visit to the country, would still find a way to come to Rumbek, in the Lakes State of South Sudan.
Carlassare, who for the past year has been in recovery from last year’s attack, is set to return to Rumbek this month shortly ahead of his episcopal ordination, which has been scheduled for March 25.
Recalling the attack against Carlassare, Treacy said the sentiment amongst students at her school and other locals is that they want the pope to come to Rumbek “because we want the pope to see us and to hear us apologizing for what happened to our bishop-elect.”
They want the pope to know “the heart that the people have in Rumbek, that they want reconciliation, that they’re not for violence, but that they’re one with the church and they want to support the new bishop-elect,” she said.
“Very often the worst stories reach the international news, and the people say, that’s not us. We want peace, we want reconciliation, we want to build our country,” she said.
With regard to the question of whether Pope Francis will come to Rumbek, Treacy said there is currently a “Plan A” and a “Plan B.”
In the event that the pope does not come, the students, she said, are prepared to make a “Peace Walk” to Juba to meet him.
Both Treacy and Impagliazzo stressed the importance of the ecumenical tone of the papal visit, saying the pope’s presence alongside Welby and Fair will send a strong signal to the country’s leaders about the importance of unity in striving for peace.
This symbolism is especially important for South Sudan’s leaders, Treacy said, noting that Kiir himself is Catholic and Machar is Anglican.
“I think coming together and just having the one prayer together is also fantastic – with elders, with leaders, with big people. I think that would also be a great symbol of unity for all of us,” she said, adding, “for our leaders and politics, to have their faith leaders as they did in 2019 in Rome coming together will also be very healing and wonderful for all of us.”
Impagliazzo voiced his belief that the ecumenical aspect of the trip could help leaders move forward in making serious efforts to fully implement the peace agreement.
Since most South Sudanese are Christian, even if they belong to different denominations, “we must do everything so that they recognize each other as Christians, as belonging to a common people,” Impagliazzo said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen