Pope Francis has said churches in South Sudan “cannot remain neutral” but must raise their voices against injustice and abuse of power, as he and two other Christian leaders conducted a peace mission to the world’s newest country.
After arriving in the world’s newest country on the first-ever papal visit on Friday, Francis was spending Saturday ministering first to church personnel and then to South Sudanese who have been forced by fighting, flooding and other crises to leave their homes.
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.
Francis was highlighting in particular the plight of South Sudanese women, half of whom married before the age of 18, subjected to sexual violence and then faced the world’s highest maternal mortality rate.
“Let us ask ourselves what it means for us to be ministers of God in a land scarred by war, hatred, violence, and poverty,” Francis said in St Theresa Cathedral in the capital, Juba.
“How can we exercise our ministry in this land, along the banks of a river bathed in so much innocent blood, among the tear-stained faces of the people entrusted to us?”
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.
Joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Presbyterian head of the Church of Scotland, 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.
At the cathedral on Saturday, Francis urged South Sudan’s bishops, priests, nuns and seminarians not to join religious life for social prestige, but to serve their flocks by accompanying them.
“It is precisely this art of stepping into the middle of our brothers and sisters that the church’s pastors need to cultivate: the ability to step into the middle of their sufferings and tears, into the middle of their hunger for God and their thirst for love ,” he said.
Francis heard of the horrible sacrifices some nuns have made. Sisters Mary Daniel Abut and Regina Roba Luate of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart Sisters were killed in a 2021 ambush along with two others.
“Thank you, on behalf of the entire Church, for your dedication, your courage, your sacrifices and your patience,” Francis said.
Women and girls in South Sudan live a “hellish existence”, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said in a report last year based on several years of interviews.
“South Sudanese women are physically assaulted while being raped at gunpoint, typically held down by men while being abused by others. They are told not to resist in the slightest way, and not to report what happened, or they will be killed,” the report said.
“It’s hard to convey the level of trauma of South Sudanese women whose bodies are literally the warzone,” commission chair Yasmin Sooka said late last year.
In his arrival speech Friday, Francis raised the plight of women and called for them to be protected and promoted.
Among those on hand for his visit to the cathedral on Saturday was Sister Regina Achan, who said Francis’s visit would encourage other sisters to keep serving.
“We stand with them because we are their voices, we don’t run away at difficult times,” said Achan.
Francis’s visit, she added, would awaken “serenity and peace in our hearts that we may work for peace and justice in this country”.
Francis issued a blunt warning on Friday to President Salva Kiir and his one-time rival and now deputy Riek Machar that history will judge them harshly if they continue to drag their feet on implementing the peace accord.
Kiir, for his part, committed the government to return to peace talks – suspended last year – with groups that did not sign onto the 2018 accord.
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’ 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.