Pope Francis Calls for Peace in South Sudan During Visit

JUBA, South Sudan – On the final day of his apostolic visit to Africa, Pope Francis met with displaced South Sudanese who have borne the brunt of the conflict he has come to help resolve. by issuing blunt and uncompromising calls to leaders to take the issue of peace seriously.

“I am here with you, and I suffer for you and with you,” Pope Francis said at Liberty Hall in the capital Juba, in front of hundreds of people who, like millions of South Sudanese, have lived their lives. what he called “common and collective experience”. ” about living in large camps for displaced people.

Calling South Sudan “the longest refugee crisis on the continent,” afflicted by widespread hunger, especially among women and children, he lamented war, ethnic strife, violence against women and floods exacerbated by climate change have put them in peril and uprooted from their traditions and culture.

But while Francis, who visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the beginning of the week, used all his leverage, moral capital and international reputation to promote peace in South Sudan — the newest, largely Christian and still war-torn world — it’s unclear what kind of country the migrants Francis mercifully can hope to return to.

South Sudan’s rich natural resources remain a persistent magnet for looting, conflict and corruption. The patience of international donors is dwindling. Ethnic conflicts, violence and floods are on the rise. And global attention, while heightened with Francis’ visit, is fickle and fleeting in a world not short of serious conflicts and threats.

“We hope it will matter,” Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, a potential successor to Francis, who oversees the Roman Catholic Church in Asia, Africa and other mission territories, said of the pope’s presence Friday at the Presidential Palace, where Francis pushed the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, to implement a concrete plan. commitment to peace.

“We hope that this visit will highlight the beauty of these people as well as their suffering,” Cardinal Tagle said. “And we hope not only the churches, but also the international community will come together. Unfortunately, we need events like this to be on the radar.”

And when the pope returns to Rome on Sunday, the country’s woes will remain, both in the violence that bloody the land and the treasures buried in it.

South Sudan has Africa’s third-largest oil reserves, which are said to have ensured the country’s prosperity after gaining independence from Sudan in 2011. Much of the oil business is run by companies. foreign multinationals have been criticized for corrupt or unethical practices, such as funding militia accused of atrocities. But the country’s leadership, widely regarded as one of the most corrupt in the world, also has plenty to answer.

Numerous investigations by foreign organizations have documented how billions of oil revenues have been siphoned off by South Sudan’s leaders with the help of foreign companies, oil traders, and the like. and bank. Instead of building the country, oil became a factor in the destruction of the country, sparking an infighting that exploded into a five-year civil war.

Johnny Ohisa Damian, governor of the Bank of South Sudan, said: “In the whole of Africa, where oil is produced, it’s a curse. He expressed hope that the pope’s visit and his promotion of peace will show stability and encourage more international financial investment. He also hopes it can convince the United States and other Western donors to shift some of their powerful relief aid to development.

But Mr. Damian said the country cannot rely on oil alone. The government estimates that its reserves will be exhausted in the next 11 years. He said it needed to diversify, taking advantage of millions of acres of arable land for large-scale farming and ranching.

With the war in Ukraine in particular, Damian envisioned South Sudan, part of which was officially declared a famine in 2017, as a bread basket for Africa. But he said that in order for the country to move forward and for displaced people to return to their homes, “politicians must be steadfast in peace.”

Pope Francis echoed that sentiment Saturday afternoon, envisioning “agriculture and animal husbandry” jobs for displaced people. Disappearing oil revenues are also a thorny issue for Western donors, who pump billions of dollars into South Sudan each year to feed its starving populations and provide a bit of relief. medical service.

Nearly eight million South Sudanese, or two-thirds of the population, will severely undernourished By April, the United Nations recently predicted that 1.4 million children would be malnourished. The United States, which played a key role in South Sudan’s independence, is South Sudan’s largest single donor, spending about $1 billion a year.

Alan Boswell, a Sudan expert at the International Crisis Group, said frustration with the post-independence leadership’s failures had made the country a “toxic” subject in Washington. However, he added, Americans also bear some of the blame.

“They argue that this country can survive on oil,” Mr. Boswell said. “But that’s ultimately the prize that South Sudan’s leaders compete for.”

Local Catholic Church officials say that fighting has prevented the country from exploiting its resources.

“You cannot manage your resources when there is war,” said Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla, archbishop of Juba, who also said there is a lot of gold to mine.. He said the country’s leaders need to be reminded by Pope Francis that “despite all the greed or all this money flowing out of petrol,” it was there to “help people.”

Archbishop Ameyu added that outside interest groups and local elites “who don’t care about the poor” have exploited the oil, but the Church, with its focus on the poor, has considered peace. Peace and reconciliation is the only way to allow people to “share the majority”. , the great national resource we have here.”

The transformative potential of those resources was on the minds of leaders watching Francis and other religious leaders boldly asking for more from Mr. Kiir in the Presidential Garden on Friday. .

“It was an opportunity,” said Atoroba Wilson Rikita Gbudue, king of the Azande Kingdom in southwestern South Sudan, saying the country is blessed with oil, gold, diamonds and fertile land. He said peace is essential to save lives and allow displaced people to return home, but also to “be able to identify other resources that we need in this country.”

But the main need of the country, the Vatican has argued, is peace forced by international pressure and attention. On Thursday, at least 27 people, including five children, die in clashes in the state of Central Equatoria. Horrific sexual assaults are on the rise, as are the abductions of children by armed herders in the eastern state of Jonglei.

Francis on Saturday morning told a meeting of his clergy that they should not stand on the sidelines. “We too are called to intercede for our people, speak out against injustice and abuses of oppressive power and use violence to achieve our own ends amid the cloud of conflict,” he said at the House. Cathedral of St. Therese added, “we cannot remain neutral in the face of pain caused by acts of injustice and violence.”

The pope himself has relentlessly tried to raise awareness of those crimes, not only by mediating to end a conflict that has killed more than 400,000 people, but also by attracting the attention of the pope. internationally in 2019 when he knelt at the Vatican to kiss the Pope. the shoes of Mr Kiir, a former rebel who has led South Sudan since 2011, and his arch-rival, Riek Machar.

“It’s so big – I don’t know how to explain it. It shows that we are in the pope’s heart,” he said. Alokiir Malual, who represents civil society groups in South Sudan. When the pope canceled a trip last summer because of mobility issues, she said the country feared he would never come. “We are all worried: age, distance, health,” she said. But his arrival made clear “our importance” in his pontificate. And his arrival in Juba added to that attention.

That attention is not necessarily flattering to Mr. Kiir.

Activists have called on the pope to confront the increasingly repressive rule of Mr Kiir, whose security forces are regularly accused of detaining, torturing and killing human rights defenders. Even those who have fled abroad are in danger from the government of South Sudan, based on a report by the Irish-based human rights group Front Line Defenders.

Elections are scheduled for late 2024, although few believe the country is ready. A unity government set up by Mr Kiir and Mr Machar in 2020 has been plagued by mistrust.

The religious and civic leaders of South Sudan hope that the visit of Pope Francis, joined by Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury and iconic head of the Anglican Communion, and Iain Greenshields, leader of the Church of Scotland, could change that.

Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, a former priest of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, said he hopes that political leaders will “learn to come together” from united religious leaders, and understand that “this is the time to forgive each other”.


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