ROME– After a decades-long bloody war that ended in 2005, six years later South Sudan got its independence from Sudan, becoming the youngest nation in the world. Yet the bloodshed is far from over, as ethnic-related fights are still ongoing.
Trying to help broker peace, Pope Francis on Thursday welcomed to the Vatican the three top Christian leaders of South Sudan.
The three were in Rome after having accepted an invitation handed to them through Cardinal Peter Turkson, the pope’s point man on issues of justice and peace. (That’s literally the case, since the prelate from Ghana heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and will soon be the top man at the new Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development.)
The South Sudanese leaders in question are Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro, of Juba; Reverend Daniel Deng Bul Yak, Archbishop of the Province of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan; and Reverend Peter Gai Lual Marrow, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan.
The three prelates told journalists on Thursday that the original plan had been for Francis to meet with President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his former deputy Riek Machar, since they’re largely perceived as the leaders of the country’s two conflicting factions, but Machar fled the country earlier in the year and he couldn’t be reached to receive the invitation.
According to a Vatican statement, the religious leaders met “in the context of the tensions that divide the population to the detriment of coexistence in the country.”
Among other issues, “it was acknowledged that good and fruitful collaboration exists among the Christian Churches,” who wish primarily to offer their contribution to implementing initiatives for dialogue and reconciliation.
During their encounter, the South Sudanese pastors invited Francis to visit their country in the near future, and the pontiff, who’s told journalists he’s contemplating a trip to “several African nations” for next year, showed interest.
“He agreed in principle, said that he would work on that,” Marrow, the Presbyterian leader, said.
Even if there’s no firm commitment as to when, nor has an official invitation been presented from the president – when travelling, the pope does so as a head of state, so he needs an invitation from his counterpart – the pressure is on: “We cannot hide that we’ve extended this invitation,” Marrow said. “We will share it with the president, and with the whole country, with our religious communities.”
“The pope’s visit would be that of a religious leader, it’d have a great impact and would be highly welcomed,” Loro, the Catholic bishop, said. “It’d be a great help for us, and it’s for this reason that we’ve come [to visit Francis].”
According to Loro, Francis can help South Sudan because “we are a God-fearing nation” and people respect his leadership.
The diplomatic muscle the Vatican has in South Sudan was one of the things Loro brought up during the meeting with his boss. Even though he acknowledged the great efforts being done by the papal representative, the fact that the country shares an ambassador, called a nuncio, with neighboring Kenya, is seen as a problem.
When asked about it by Francis, Loro told the pope that ideally there would be one living in the country permanently, so he could have a better grasp of the situation.
South Sudan’s is often labeled as a “forgotten war,” rarely spoken about in the media, yet it’s one of the bloodiest current conflicts.
A day before the religious leaders met in the Vatican, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, issued a warning saying that unless the alarming rise in hate speech and incitement to violence against ethnic groups is reined in, “mass atrocities in the country could erupt.”
Last August, the UN had warned that government forces and rebels had committed ethnically targeted rapes and killings of civilians during clashes. Many fear that politicians will promote ethnic violence if it serves their purposes to remain in power.
For this reason, according to Loro, unity among religious leaders is key, as is the perception of Christians working together to address the problems, consulting each other and suggesting a solution based on dialogue and consultation.
“The way forward, that will lead [the ethnic groups] to be friends again, will come through dialogue,” he said. “And it must be inclusive, everyone involved in this conflict must be called to come and talk about peace, so people will iron their differences on the table.”
But no solution will come from violence, he warned: “A problem can’t be solved with another problem.”
According to UNICEF, the UN’s children’s agency, an estimated six million children risk suffering malnutrition, and recent escalations in the violence make the aid distribution harder.
The country is rich in oil, but following decades of civil war, South Sudan is also one of the least developed countries on earth: only 15 percent of the total population of 11 million owns a mobile phone.
The World Bank estimates that 85 percent of the working population is engaged in non-wage work, chiefly in agriculture.
South Sudan has two major ethnic groups, the Murle and the Lou Nuer, and clashes between them have been a constant since independence, despite several ceasefires signed since then.
Marrow defined the ethnic hatred marring the country as a “deadly disease,” with lives at risk as a direct result of the violence but also because humanitarian aid is difficult to distribute in a situation of conflict.
But “there is a dire need for everything, for food, for shelter, for everything,” he sentenced.
It’s amidst this desperate situation that the Christian leaders remind their people that “there’s no point in killing each other, there’s no point in destroying the little we have,” Marrow said.