ROME— If presented with the opportunity, a bishop of South Sudan, where millions are at risk of dying from starvation, said he would tell the Donald Trump administration and the U.S. Congress that putting “America first” cannot mean “America only.”
“Maybe President Trump, who was elected by the people, has seen that the people of the United States would like for him to concentrate on America,” Bishop Erkolano Lodu Tombe told Crux on Wednesday.
“I don’t think that can be objected to. But ‘America first’ does not mean America only.”
Tombe also said that Pope Francis is expected to visit the war-torn country “facing the risk of genocide” in October.
The possibility that he does so with the head of the Church in England would highlight even more the need for a dialogical solution to the armed conflict, which began as a power struggle between the current president and his former deputy.
According to the United Nations, South Sudan has been hit by a famine that might put the lives of five million people at risk of starvation in upcoming months if the situation doesn’t improve.
Tombe, head of Caritas South Sudan, is currently in Rome briefing the Catholic Church’s main charitable organization, Caritas Internationalis, on the country’s crisis in an attempt to better coordinate the aid.
Yet beyond the urgent need for food, the bishop believes that peace advocacy is even more urgent: “The Holy Father has called for the international community to help South Sudan, not just talk about it.”
The pontiff has spoken about visiting the country as part of a broader African tour several times, particularly after the idea of an ecumenical trip with Archbishop Justin Welby, head of the Church of England, was presented to him last year.
The last time Pope Francis publicly addressed the rumors of a trip to South Sudan was in late February, when he said, “We are looking at whether it is possible, or if the situation down there is too dangerous. But we have to do it, because they – the three [Christian communities] – together desire peace, and they are working together for peace.”
South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, became independent from Sudan in 2011 and since 2013 has been torn by a civil war motivated primarily by ethnic divisions between the Dinkas and the Nuers.
The leaders of the opposing groups are President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, who has fled the country but still leads his troops.
On top of the civil war, South Sudan has been hit by the same east African drought that has pushed other African countries, such as Somalia, to the brink of famine.
Tens of thousands have died in the South Sudanese conflict, with the army and rebel groups targeting civilians, and more than three million people have been displaced.
UN human rights official Yasmin Sooka recently said the country is on the brink of genocide: “The stage is being set for a repeat of what happened in Rwanda and the international community is under an obligation to prevent it.”
Tombe agreed, saying that even though it’s not yet happened, the risk of it is very real.
Michel Roy, head of Caritas Internationalis, also spoke with Crux on Wednesday. He agrees with Tombe in the sense that the local people don’t trust the local authorities, among other reasons because it’s the government’s policy to chase people away from their homes to put their own people there.
“There’s a kind of ethnic cleansing going on,” Roy said. “It’s really a terrible situation and it’s difficult to bring food to the people who’ve been displaced.”
Furthermore, he said, neighboring countries are “on the wrong side” because most of them, following their national interests, are helping the current government. “There’s a lot of work to do to push for a negotiated solution to the conflict,” he said.
The Catholic Church, particularly Catholic Relief Service (CRS), Roy said, is working with the World Food Program to guarantee that food arrives to the people, and they’re doing so by working directly at a grass-roots level.
CRS is the international aid organization of the United States Bishops.
“The humanitarian situation is such that you cannot close your eyes, you have to come and help the people. and there’s a scaling up: Thanks to the media interest in the situation, there’s an increased interest from several states to do something there,” Roy said.
The head of Caritas, a papal charity, also addressed the proposed budget cut to international aid suggested by the Trump administration: “Cutting aid financially should mean at the same time that you increase your diplomatic engagement to stop the reasons why aid is needed.
“If you say ‘I’m not interested in this, nor in that either,’ it’s going to increase the problems in the world.”
Crux spoke with Tombe on Wednesday. What follow are excerpts of that conversation.
What brought you to Rome?
The reason of my coming to Rome is for a meeting of Caritas family members with Caritas South Sudan. I came with the executive director, a lay person, and two directors of diocesan Caritas, and also the relief coordinator.
This meeting we’re having is very important because war is going on in the country and the humanitarian situation in the country is very dire. Caritas Internationalis wanted to know what the situation is like and who can be helped. Also, the Holy Father has called for the international community to help South Sudan, not just talk about it. The situation is not good.
How can those who are not members of Caritas help South Sudan?
Advocacy for peace. This is paramount in South Sudan. The children, the grownups, even us Church leaders are crying for peace. And we’re the voice of the people, and we try our best to talk, to advocate for peace through dialogue. We’re not being listened to…Our leaders are not listening.
The best way to help us then, is to raise the voice, to talk, advocate for peace in South Sudan. You have a larger voice… and it can be a solution to this great humanitarian conflict. If the solution to these big, political problems which have caused a terrible humanitarian catastrophe is left for us South Sudanese alone, we won’t succeed. We need the support of others to help us solve this problem.
We’re not listening to ourselves, we need help from outside.
For the fiscal year 2017 the United States government has allocated over $700 million, yet the budget for next year, as presented by the Trump administration, would severely cut down the resources of the U.S. foreign aid agency, USAID. If you could sit down with the powers that be that will make this call, what would you tell them?
Each president of every nation has responsibility for his own people first of all. And maybe President Trump, who was elected by the people, has seen that the people of the United States would like for him to concentrate on America. That is why in his campaign he was talking about America first. I don’t think that can be objected to. But America first does not mean America only.
America first means look to the interests of your people, but don’t close your eyes to the needs around you. I don’t think that a president like the United States can say my country is the only one. It should not be America only … it’s not an isolated nation, it’s in the world. You can’t become an island.
Is the pope going to South Sudan this year?
We have been told by our Nuncio [papal representative in the country, in this case shared with Kenya], that the Holy See has already accepted that the Holy Father comes to our country in October. Last year he said he’d come, but didn’t know when.
How could a visit help the country?
It would give a very strong spiritual moral. The base of this visit is pastoral, which is spiritually deep in the people. The people of South Sudan are very religious. They don’t believe in their political leaders. The only voice right now that is credible is that of the Church.
To hear that the pope is coming, hopefully with the Archbishop of Canterbury, reinforces the trust the local people have in their own local Church authorities: We’re not alone … the Holy Father is with us. Other things become secondary.
You just mentioned that it’s possible Pope Francis will visit South Sudan with the Archbishop of Canterbury. How significant do you think it’d be to see the leaders of two Christian churches that are divided and have their problems, differences, and conflicts, put their differences aside and join forces for the greater good, in this case advocate for peace in South Sudan?
The impact would be great for all the Christians. Ecumenism in South Sudan is highly developed. Catholics and Protestants have no problems among ourselves. We look at the quarrels between Christians, particularly Protestants and Catholics, and that’s been imported to us. This division for us is not deep in our faith, because there is one Christ.
Therefore, the coming of these two leaders of these two churches is saying that there’s no need for Christians to quarrel among themselves.
We have a lot of ecumenical programs which we organize together. We have the South Sudanese Council of Churches, and the Catholic Church is a member, with a big moral influence. So for us, this will be enhancing.
The ecumenism that we’re living among ourselves, we do so because we’re asking our people to look at what is essential in religion. What divides us, we respect, is a matter of faith. But what unites us: We work together, even in social response, or advocacy to end this war. We work together because our people listen to the voice of the churches, either Catholic or not.
The visit of the two leaders would be very much welcomed, as it would be an enhancing of the ecumenism which is so important, also for effective Christian witness in the world. We, Christians, don’t want to be seen as people who quarrel among themselves.