Pope Francis has met South Sudanese children displaced by conflict and heard of the hardships of their lives in camps, telling them they would build a better future for the world’s newest country by replacing ethnic hatred with forgiveness.
The pope was visiting South Sudan with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Church of Scotland Moderator Iain Greenshields – an unprecedented joint “pilgrimage of peace”.
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South Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011 but plunged into civil war in 2013 with ethnic groups turning on each other. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, bouts of inter-ethnic fighting have continued to kill and displace large numbers of civilians.
At a meeting in the capital Juba, the Christian leaders listened to testimonies from displaced children including Johnson Juma Alex, 14, who has been living in a camp since 2014 after fleeing his hometown because of fighting.
“Life in the camp is not good because the area is small and crowded,” he told them, reading haltingly from a prepared text in English, which is not his native language.
“There is not enough space to play football. Many children do not go to school because there are not enough teachers and schools for all of us,” he said.
“The future cannot lie in refugee camps,” the pope told the children after hearing their stories at the event, which was held in a prefabricated structure holding about 2,500 people.
“As you said, Johnson, there is a need for all children like yourself to have the opportunity to go to school – and to have a field to play football!”
Francis said hope for South Sudan’s future rests in children from different ethnic groups, who have suffered and are still suffering, yet who do not want to respond to evil with more evil.
There are 2.2 million internally displaced people in South Sudan, out of a total population of about 11.6 million, and another 2.3 million have fled the country as refugees, according to the United Nations.
Extreme poverty and hunger have become rife, with two-thirds of the population needing humanitarian assistance as a result of conflict, as well as three years of catastrophic floods.
Francis has been seeking to draw global attention to the country’s plight. The visit aimed to encourage South Sudan’s political leaders to implement a 2018 peace accord ending the civil war.
The deal and many of its key provisions, including the formation of a national unified army, have stalled amid political infighting and continued clashes around the country that have forced the postponement of the first presidential election for another two years.
Francis also called for women and girls to be respected, protected and honoured during the meeting in Juba. Women, girls and children make up the majority of those displaced.
The head of the UN mission in South Sudan, Sara Beysolow Nyanti, told Francis that women and girls were “extremely vulnerable” to sexual and gender-based violence, with UN statistics estimating some four out of 10 have been victim to one or more forms of assault. She said women and girls were at risk for rape when they were just out doing their daily routines and chores.
“If the women of South Sudan are given an opportunity to develop, to have space to be productive, South Sudan will be transformed,” she told Francis.
The pope picked up her theme in his remarks, saying women were the key to South Sudan’s peaceful development.
“Please, protect, respect, appreciate and honour every woman, every girl, young woman, mother and grandmother,” he said. “Otherwise, there will be no future.”
According to UNICEF, roughly 75 percent of girls in South Sudan do not go to school because their parents prefer to keep them at home and set them up for a marriage that will bring a dowry for the family.
Half of South Sudan’s women are married before age 18, and they then face the world’s highest maternal mortality rate. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said in a report last year that, overall, women and girls here live a “hellish existence.”
Mariam Nyantabo, a 36-year-old resident of a Juba protection camp, said women were grateful for Francis’s visit.
“The plight against women is shocking,” she told the Associated Press news agency, noting the risk of rape comes from everyday chores like collecting firewood. “His visit is blessed to women of South Sudan, and I believe there will be a great change, the suffering of the women will be reduced.”
The pope’s stop in South Sudan followed a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, another resource-rich country plagued by persistent conflict.
The visit, Francis’s fifth to Africa, was initially scheduled for 2022 but had to be postponed because of problems with the pope’s knee.
The affliction has made him dependent on a wheelchair and has pared back his itinerary in both countries.