It is not every day that you see leaders of two of the world’s largest religious denominations embark on a joint trip abroad. Yet that is exactly what the world will be witnessing this coming week as Pope Francis makes an Ecumenical visit to South Sudan.
On January 31, the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics embarks on what has been described as an Ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace that will take him to the Democratic Republic of Congo and later South Sudan. On the South Sudan leg that runs from February 3-5, he will be joined by his Anglican counterpart, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, alongside Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
The pontiff’s choice of hosts is not random. The DRC and South Sudan have been plunged into what in terms of the human toll, are perhaps the costliest conflicts in recent times. Between 2013 when conflict broke out two years after South Sudan’s independence and 2018 when the current peace deal was finally signed, an estimated 400,000 people had died. The other fact is that conflict is completely avoidable and the country has a sizeable population, including the political elite, subscribing to the Christian faith.
Kissed Kiir’s feet
The DRC aside, Pope Francis’s visit to South Sudan is a follow-on to that dramatic April 2019 encounter with South Sudan’s leaders, when he kissed the feet of both President Salvar Kiir and his co-principal Dr Riek Machar. That was the most emotional plea for peace to the recalcitrant duo, and is most likely the reason the 2018 peace deal has survived complete rupture. Despite a tenuous cord that continues to hold the country together at the top, at the bottom, South Sudan is hurting and drifting further apart. Ethnic conflict continues to pit communities against each other. Nearly three million of the country’s 11 million people live as refugees outside South Sudan. In the words of Bishop Stephen Nyodho Ador Majwok of Malakal, all that these people need before they can come back home is peace and stability.
In moving together in a Christian majority country, Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby, are trying to convey the sense of unity that has thus far, eluded South Sudan’s warring leaders. The show of unity is designed to plug any room for discord that could stem from denominational differences.
Despite its spiritual façade, the prime movers in the DRC and South Sudan should not delude themselves that it is anything other than a demand for responsibility and accountability. In the DRC, the country’s 45 million Catholic faithful will have to explain why they cannot live together in harmony. In South Sudan, Salvar Kiir and Dr Riek Machar have to show how much of the talk of peace they have walked.
Beyond divine intervention, the DRC’s and South Sudan’s leaders need to take responsibility for their decisions and actions.
During a prior pontifical visit to the then still united Sudan, Pope John Paul observed that only respect and legal restraints that guarantee respect for human rights in a system of equal justice can create peaceful co-existence. That is not too much to ask of the leaders of the DRC and South Sudan.