Pope Francis will visit South Sudan in July after repeatedly delaying his trip due to security concerns in a country still emerging from a post-independence civil war.
A statement from the Vatican on Thursday said the pope would be in South Sudan July 5-7 after visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo July 2-5 on the same trip.
In South Sudan, he will visit the capital, Juba, and in the DRC, he will visit Kinshasa and Goma.
In July 2011, South Sudan officially split from Sudan, but civil war erupted two years later, causing 400,000 deaths. The two main sides signed a peace deal in 2018.
Analysts say that while the peace deal halted horrific violence, there are several unresolved issues such as stalled reunification of the national army that could plunge the country back into widespread conflict.
For years, the pope has wanted to visit South Sudan – a predominantly Christian country – but the trip has been repeatedly postponed because of the instability there.
In 2019, Pope Francis hosted South Sudan’s opposing leaders at a Vatican retreat where he knelt and kissed their feet as he urged them not to return to conflict.
A report published last month by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, urged East African leaders to press President Salva Kiir and his rival, Vice President Riek Machar, to resume negotiations on the issues that could spark more fighting.
Though the capital Juba is firmly under the control of the Kiir-led government and no clashes between rival security factions have recently been reported there, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) frequently reports on incidents of fighting and crimes against civilians in many parts of the country.
This week, UNMISS and the UN Human Rights Office published a report on the deaths of more than 400 civilians during fighting last year between two rebel groups in Tambura County, Western Equatoria State.
In the DRC, security is not expected to be an issue in Kinshasa, but it may be in Goma, which is in the restive eastern region. Italy’s ambassador, his bodyguard and driver were killed in an ambush north of Goma last year.
The government has declared a state of siege and placed some provinces under martial law to tackle armed groups carrying out attacks in the region. They include the ISIL-linked Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), against which Congo and Uganda are currently carrying out a joint military operation.