ROME – On Christmas Eve, Pope Francis sent letters to Lebanon and South Sudan offering comfort to citizens and urging leaders to exert more effort in the quest for peace, voicing his desire to visit both countries as soon as possible.

In the Dec. 24 letter to South Sudan, which was also signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Reverend Martin Fair, the three religious leaders reminded South Sudanese leaders of their commitment to achieve peace, praising recent efforts but urging them to do more.

In a significant move in South Sudan’s peace process, the country’s main opposition group in November announced their adherence to a 2018 peace deal that until recently they had opposed, making the implementation of the agreement seem more likely.

Conflict in South Sudan erupted shortly after its independence in 2011. Just two years later, President Salva Kiir ousted Vice President Riek Machar in December 2013, accusing him of attempting to lead a coup to overthrow the government.

What began as a political dispute quickly turned into an ethnic conflict, with South Sudan’s two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer – to which the leaders belong – targeting one another as violence broke out.

At least 400,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the violence thus far, and millions more displaced amid a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Kiir and Machar in 2015 agreed to a ceasefire that eventually collapsed. They reached a new agreement in September 2018 but have twice extended the deadline for implementation over disagreements on technicalities, such as the number of states the country will have and how to handle security.

Pope Francis, who has closely followed South Sudan’s peace process, last year said he would visit troubled country alongside Welby and Fair if the country’s leaders were able to bring the 7-year conflict to an end.

In April 2019, the pontiff invited both the South Sudanese president and the opposition leader to a retreat at the Vatican, where he made headlines by kissing their feet while pleading for peace. Welby and representatives from the Church of Scotland, which has a partnership with the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan and has played an active role in the peace process since 2015, also participated.

A joint trip of Francis, Welby and Fair seemed likely for 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic thwarted those plans.

In their letter, the three recalled the 2019 retreat, and reminded South Sudanese leaders of their commitment “to bring your country to a smooth implementation of the Peace Agreement, and ours to visit South Sudan in due course, as things return to normalcy.”

“We have been glad to see the small progress you have made, but know it is not enough for your people to feel the full effect of peace,” they said, adding, “When we visit, we long to bear witness to a changed nation, governed by leaders who, in the words of the Holy Father last year, ‘hold hands, united … as simple citizens’ to ‘become Fathers (and Mothers) of the Nation.’”

The three closed their letter praying that as Christmas approaches, South Sudanese leaders would “know greater trust among yourselves and a greater generosity of service to your people. We pray you know the peace that surpasses understanding in your own hearts and in the heart of your great nation.”

In a separate letter addressed to Cardinal Béchara Boutros Raï, Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites and to the president of the Assembly of the Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops of Lebanon, Pope Francis said he wanted to offer words of “comfort and encouragement” to the Lebanese people amid an increasingly difficult national situation.

On Aug. 4, Lebanon was rocked by a massive double explosion at the port of Beirut, which is considered to be among the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in the world. The blast, eventually blamed on 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate for years stored unsafely in a port warehouse, killed more than 190 people, injured some 6,500, and left roughly 300,000 more homeless.

Compounding an already complex situation, the explosion happened as Lebanon was already on the path toward economic collapse, and it pushed the population further into poverty amid soaring unemployment and inflation rates.

Already in October 2019, more than a million Lebanese of all religions and backgrounds took to the streets in massive months-long protests against what they believe to be a corrupt political class.

Yet a year later, the situation has not changed. In the wake of the explosions, Prime Minister Hassan Diab submitted his Cabinet’s resignation, and for months the country has been left without a government.

Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres established a fund overseen by the World Bank, the United Nations, and the European Union to provide assistance to Lebanon in terms of food, healthcare, education, and the reconstruction of areas damaged by the blast.

In his letter, Francis said he was “deeply troubled” by the “suffering and anguish that has sapped the native resilience and resourcefulness of the Land of the Cedars.”

“It is even more painful to see you deprived of your precious aspirations to live in peace and to continue being, for our time and our world, a message of freedom and a witness to harmonious coexistence,” he said, pointing to the many young people who because of the country’s woes have been “robbed of any hope for a better future.”

Turning to the celebration of Christmas, the pope offered a message of hope, quoting a line from the biblical prophet Isaiah, who said “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

This light, he said, “lessens our fears and instils in each of us the sure hope that God’s Providence will never abandon Lebanon and will turn this time of sadness to good.”

Reflecting on the biblical symbolism of the cedar tree, for which Lebanon is known, Francis said it stands for values such as stability, steadfastness, and protection, and is a symbol of beauty and prosperity, even in old age.

As the birth of Christ draws near, Francis told the Lebanese to “Trust in his presence and his faithfulness. Like the cedar, draw deeply from the roots of your life in common, so that you may once more be a people of fraternal solidarity.”

“Like the cedar that withstands every storm, may you make the most of present events in order to rediscover your identity, which is to bring to the whole world the sweet fragrance of mutual respect, coexistence and pluralism,” he said, urging citizens not to abandon their dream of a successful and prosperous country.

Pope Francis then issued an appeal to both political and religious leaders in Lebanon to “to seek the best interest of the public” over their own.

“Your time should not be dedicated to pursuing your own gain, your action is not for yourselves, but for the state and the nation you represent,” he said, voicing his hope to visit “as soon as possible.”

Francis asked the international community to intercede in helping Lebanon to be rid of conflict and regional tensions, and to “surmount this grave crisis and resume a normal existence.”

“Beloved sons and daughters, in the darkness of the night, lift up your gaze. May the star of Bethlehem be your guide and a source of encouragement, so that you may come to understand more fully God’s plan, and so lose neither your way nor your hope,” he said.

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