YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Reflecting both the symbolic and the strategic importance of the world’s youngest independent nation, Pope Francis’s top diplomat recently urged South Sudan not to succumb to the “plague of vengeance” on his third trip to the African state.

Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin said Thursday in the largely Christian nation, which has been marred by violence since gaining independence in 2011, that forgiveness is “the key that unlocks the door to peace and justice – the forgiveness that Christ won for us on the cross.”

The Vatican Secretary of State was speaking Thursday in the South Sudanese city of Rumbek.

“Either we disarm our heart and give up violent means of solving our differences, or we destroy ourselves,” Parolin said.

He called on South Sudan to “look beyond all differences” and explore ways of bridging the country’s divides.

After winning its independence from Sudan in 2011, the new nation quickly became mired in seemingly intractable internal conflict.

What started as a political spat between the dominant political elite has degenerated into ethnic violence, pitting President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, against Vice President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer. Kiir accused Machar of fomenting a coup, prompting Machar to flee the capital city of Juba.

Fighting soon spread across the country. The national army collapsed as an assemblage of anti-government forces, mostly of Nuer origin and coordinated by Marchar, took up arms against the state.

South Sudan’s neighbors and the larger international community have been struggling to try to save the new nation from collapse. The South Sudan peace process, overseen by a regional agency known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), has a dual objective: To put an end to the violence, and to foster dialogue and post-conflict political transition.

A peace agreement was signed in September 2018, with a key element of the deal being a democratic transfer of power. Implementation, however, has been slow, and elections that were supposed to be held this year were postponed to December 2024.

Pockets of inter-communal fighting have continued in several parts of the country. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, 2,240 people were killed in South Sudan last year alone.

The failure to implement key elements of the peace deal has sparked concerns that the country could descend into a self-destructive civil war.

“We are going to go for (the) electoral process without meeting the benchmarks that create a conducive environment for the conduct of elections,” Edmund Yakani, executive director for Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, a local advocacy group, recently told the Associated Press.

“The return of the country to violence is more evident than the country staying in stability,” he said.

In that context, Pope Francis and his Vatican aides have been key players in the press for peace. Francis invited Kiir and Machar to a retreat at the Vatican in October and November of 2019, where he knelt and kissed their feet and asked them to keep to the peace treaty. The pontiff then visited the country himself last February.

During his four-day visit last week, Parolin attempted to drive home the message.

“We know what it means to live in a continual state of insecurity and fear,” Parolin told congregants in Rumbek, but noted that perfect love can drive out fear.

Parolin also visited the city of Malakal, where he warned South Sudanese against engaging in what he called “the plague of vengeance,” noting that it was “destroying their communities.”

Malakal has been plagued by intercommunal violence over natural resources, despite a general drop in fighting in the country following the 2018 peace deal. The town has also been blighted by natural disasters, including floods.

On June 8,2023, fresh fighting erupted near the United Nations Mission in South Sudan’s base in Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state. Two displaced communities sheltering in a UN Protection of Civilians Site engaged each other in fighting following a stabbing incident. At least 13 people were killed and more than 20 others injured.

“All of us are familiar with the situation in Malakal: the issue of natural disasters, floods and many other things, along with man-made disasters (…) But now there is also an opportunity for peace,” said Archbishop Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla of Juba, speaking on the Catholic radio station of the Archdiocese of Juba, on the occasion of Parolin’s visit.

Parolin visited the country bearing what he called “a message of goodwill from Pope Francis.”

On arrival, he met both Kiir and Machar, as well as the Archbishop emeritus of Khartoum, Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako. The Vatican diplomat used the meeting to urge the people of South Sudan “to embrace the spirit of peace and reconciliation in order to build a harmonious society in the country.”

The country’s leadership welcomed the pope’s envoy, with South Sudan’s Foreign Affairs Minister Deng Dau Malek noting that Parolin’s visit was evidence that Pope Francis “appreciates and commends the role President Salva is playing in the Sudanese conflict. As a man of God, he encourages the president to continue to support the peace process in Sudan so that the suffering stops”.

Malek noted that during Parolin’s meetings with government and opposition leaders, the discussion centered on what has so far been done to implement the September 2018 peace agreement intended to pull the young nation out of a conflict that has killed over 400,000 people and left an estimated four million displaced.

Malek further said Parolin and the country’s leadership discussed issues “touching on peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, security, and the humanitarian situation created by the conflict in Sudan.”

Parolin underscored the need for South Sudanese to embrace the path to peace, recognizing Christ’s presence in their midst.

“Christ is the Father’s word of peace to us,” the Vatican Secretary of State said, before urging the people of Africa’s newest country to “move from words to deeds.”

“It is time to turn the page: it is the time for commitment to an urgent and much-needed transformation. The process of peace and reconciliation requires a new start,” he said, citing Pope Francis when the Holy Father visited the country in February on “a pilgrimage of peace.”