Pope Francis has ended a trip to South Sudan with an impassioned plea for peace and forgiveness in the war-torn country.
Francis made the appeal on Sunday as he presided over an open-air Mass attended by 100,000 people on the grounds of a mausoleum for South Sudan’s liberation hero John Garang in the capital Juba.
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He urged worshippers – including the country’s president and his opponents – to reject the “blind fury of violence”.
Francis also called for an end to tribalism, financial wrongdoing and the alleged corruption at the root of many of the country’s problems, while advising attendees to build “good human relationships as a way of curbing the corruption of evil, the disease of division, the filth of fraudulent business dealings and the plague of injustice”.
Many in the crowd sang, drummed and ululated as Francis entered the grounds. His homily was repeatedly interrupted by loud cheers.
“Dear brothers and sisters, I return to Rome with you even closer to my heart,” he said. “Never lose hope. And lose no opportunity to build peace. May hope and peace dwell among you. May hope and peace dwell in South Sudan.”
The visit marked the first time in Christian history that leaders of the Catholic, Anglican and Reformed traditions conducted a joint foreign trip, with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the global Anglican Communion, and Iain Greenshields, moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, joining Francis for the “pilgrimage of peace”.
The tour of the continent also included a stop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, home to Africa’s largest Roman Catholic community, where Francis condemned what he called the foreign plundering of Africa.
Francis has long shown interest in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, which broke away from Sudan in 2011 but quickly devolved into a civil war that killed 400,000 people and forced millions of others to flee their homes. In one of the most remarkable gestures of his papacy, Francis in 2019 knelt to kiss the feet of the country’s previously warring leaders during a meeting at the Vatican.
Still, despite a 2018 peace deal signed by President Salva Kiir, his longtime rival Riek Machar and other opposition groups, violence has persisted in some parts of the country. Violence in the country’s Central Equatoria state between cattle herders and members of an armed group left 27 dead on Thursday, a day before the pope arrived.
Meanwhile, several of the agreement’s provisions, including the formation of a unified national army, remain largely unimplemented.
The trip by the three Christian leaders sought a recommitment to the 2018 deal, while also highlighting the humanitarian situation in the country of nearly 11 million, which has been further beset by natural disasters and widespread poverty, despite having some of the largest crude oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa.
Among the worshippers at Sunday’s Mass was Ferida Modon, 72, who lost three of her children to the conflict.
“I want peace to come to South Sudan. Yes, I believe that his visit will change the situation. We are now tired of conflict,” she told the Reuters news agency. “We want God to listen to our prayers.”
Jesilen Gaba, 42, a widow with four children, said: “The fact that the three Churches united for the sake of South Sudan, this is the turning point for peace. I want the visit to be a blessing to us. We have been at war, we have lost many people.”