Pope avoids thorny issue of elections in ‘Pilgrimage of Peace’

Saturday February 04 2023
Pope Francis meets with South Sudan President Salva Kiir

Pope Francis (left) meets with South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir (right) at the Presidential Palace in Juba on February 3, 2023. In Kinshasa, the pontiff avoided sensitive subjects like the simmering tiff with Rwanda over M23 rebels. PHOTO | VATICAN MEDIA| AFP


Pope Francis arrived on a three-day visit to South Sudan on Friday to promote peace and reconciliation in the world's youngest country, traumatised by civil war and scarred by poverty.

The "pilgrimage of peace", with his Anglican and Scottish Presbyterian counterparts, is the first papal visit to South Sudan since the nation gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of conflict.

The Pope, sitting in a wheelchair, was greeted after his plane touched down at Juba airport by a number of dignitaries, including President Salva Kiir.

This follows a four-day visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo where a brutal conflict in the mineral-rich east was high on the Pope's agenda.

Civil war

Peace has eluded South Sudan, with a five-year civil war leaving 380,000 people dead, four million displaced, and the young country deeply impoverished.


The 86-year-old pontiff is expected to meet victims of conflict, as well as the country's political and church leaders, between prayers and an outdoor mass that is expected to draw large crowds.

Pope Francis is joined in South Sudan by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, underlining the broad appeal of Christianity in the country of 12 million people.

"I am very excited to see him," Hanah Zachariah, 20, told AFP, one of dozens of pilgrims who walked nine days from the town of Rumbek to Juba, a journey of around 400 kilometres, in a bid to see the pope.

Vatican retreat

Francis promised in 2019 to travel to South Sudan when he hosted the country's two warring leaders, Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar, at a Vatican retreat and asked them to respect a hard-fought ceasefire for their people.

In scenes that reverberated in South Sudan, where 60 percent of the people are Christian, the Argentine knelt and kissed the feet of two foes whose armies had been accused of horrific war crimes. But four years later, the country remains mired in intractable conflict.

Human Rights Watch has urged the church leaders to put pressure on South Sudan's leadership to "address the country's ongoing human rights crisis and widespread impunity."

"They should also press South Sudan's leaders to take concrete steps to end attacks on civilians and to ensure accountability for serious abuses," Mausi Segun, HRW's Africa director, said in a statement on Friday.

Hopes on Francis

War-weary citizens have pinned their hopes on Pope Francis to encourage much-needed unity in a nation riven with ethnic and political division.

"We have suffered a lot. Now, we want to achieve peace," said Robert Michael, a 36-year-old businessman.

Friday was declared a public holiday and roads in the Capital were tarmacked for the occasion.

The visit follows a trip to Kinshasa in neighbouring DRC, marking the first time since 1985 that a pope has travelled to the deeply troubled country, which has Africa's biggest Catholic following.

Before boarding his plane on Friday, the Pope urged Congolese bishops to focus on the people and not just "political activity".

About 40 percent of DRC's more than 100 million people are Catholic, according to estimates, and the church retains huge influence.

‘Brutal atrocities’

Earlier during his trip, Francis slammed "brutal atrocities" after hearing harrowing accounts from eastern Congo, including testimony from victims of sexual violence and mutilation at the hands of militias.

He added that the conflict was driven by greed for resources at the expense of innocent victims and denounced "economic colonialism" in the turbulent region.

Francis also hosted a mega-mass at Kinshasa's airport and implored young Congolese to shun corruption.

“May your country once again become a fraternal garden, the heart of peace and freedom in Africa. Do not allow yourselves to be manipulated by individuals or groups who seek to use you to keep your country in a spiral of violence and instability,” the Pope said.

Yet his message, as firm as it seemed, avoided sensitive subjects: the organisation of the upcoming elections, and the simmering tiff with Rwanda over M23 rebels.

South Sudan polls

South Sudan is 11 years old but hasn’t managed a single election. Sporadic violence since 2013 has hampered any plans for polls and a peace deal signed in 2018 created a coalition government that has until February 2024 to organise elections.

Yet ethnic clashes and reported targeting of civil society activists are some of the biggest governance issues in the country.

“Pope Francis should publicly call on the countries’ leaders to take concrete steps to end impunity for crimes under international law,” said Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International regional director.

But going by the trip in DRC, the pontiff may yet choose his words carefully. At the Martyrs’ Stadium in Kinshasa, Pope Francis asked an estimated 70,000 people to chant after him: “No corruption!”

This was the only time the Pontiff raised a subject considered hot in the DR Congo. As the crowd chanted about corruption, others made political reference, especially as the country gears towards elections later in the year. Some shouted “Fatshi!” President Félix Tshisekedi’s nickname.

By Patrick Ilunga and AFP