ROME — A proposed visit by Pope Francis to South Sudan, originally planned for the fall, has been postponed indefinitely.
Reports first appeared on Monday in the Italian daily Il Messaggero, stating the worsening security situation in the country made the proposed visit – which would have been an ecumenical event with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby – too dangerous to undertake.
In October 2016, Catholic 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, traveled to Rome at the invitation of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, today part of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development.
During the visit, they delivered an invitation for Francis to visit the war-torn nation.
The delegation also suggested it be an ecumenical visit, involving Welby, who visited the country on a pastoral visit in 2014.
On February 26, during a visit to Rome’s All Saints Anglican Church, Francis spoke about the proposal.
The pope said the Christian leaders asked him to “please, come to South Sudan, even for a day, but don’t come alone, come with Justin Welby.”
“We are looking at whether it is possible, or if the situation down there is too dangerous,” Francis said at the time. “But we have to do it, because they – the three [Christian communities] – together desire peace, and they are working together for peace.”
On Tuesday, Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke confirmed a trip would not happen in 2017.
South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, became independent from Muslim-majority Sudan in 2011. South Sudan is predominantly Christian, and about a third of the population, including president Salva Kiir, is Catholic.
Since 2013 it 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 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.
According to Caritas Internationalis, there are one million people in imminent danger of famine in South Sudan, and in total 5.1 million are in urgent need of food and livelihood assistance.
At least 270,000 children are suffering acute malnutrition.
In an interview with Crux in March, South Sudanese Bishop Erkolano Lodu Tombe, President of Caritas South Sudan and Bishop of Yei, said the proposed visit would have reinforced “the trust the local people have in their own local Church authorities.
“The only voice right now that is credible is that of the Church,” he said.
Francis did manage to visit another country undergoing a civil war in 2015, when he visited the Central African Republic amid strong security. During the same trip, he met with the president of South Sudan briefly in Uganda.
This shows Francis is not afraid of the risks associated with visiting a war zone, and also shows how unstable the situation in South Sudan has gotten.
Last week, United Nations officials visiting the country called the conditions “appalling.”