VATICAN CITY (Reuters) –Pope Francis in a heartwarming gesture, knelt in front of two South Sudan’s previously opposing leaders and kissed their feet last Thursday, urging them not to go back into a civil war.
He made a heartfelt request from President Salva Kiir, Riek Machar (Presidents former deputy who turned into a rebel leader) and three other vice presidents to respect and be committed to an armistice the parties signed in order to create a unity government next month.
Pope Francis said, “I am asking you as a brother to stay in peace. I am asking you with my heart, let us go forward. There will be many problems but they will not overcome us. Resolve your problems”.
The leaders look astonished with the pope’s gesture as the 82-year-old, who suffers from chronic leg pain, knelt with much difficulty to kiss the shoes of the two opposing leaders and several others in the room.
His appeal was made even more important as there was a tension building up on the same day in South Sudan due to a coup in neighboring Sudan. The fragile peace deal which ended South Sudan’s brutal 5-year civil war was at risk due to this.
The Vatican invited the South Sudanese leaders for a 24-hour prayer preaching inside the Pope’s residence with the objective of healing the bitter divisions before the country go towards a unity government.
Pope further emphasizes that “There will be struggles, disagreements among you but keep them within you, inside the office, so to speak,” Francis said in Italian as an aide translated into English. “But in front of the people, hold hands united. So, as simple citizens, you will become fathers of the nation.”
South Sudan which is a country with the majority of Christians, separated from predominantly Muslim Sudan in the year 2011. Two years after the independence, South Sudan plunged into a civil war after President Kiir, a Dinka, fired vice president Machar who was from the Nuer ethnic group.
Nearly 400,000 people lost their lives and more than one-third of the 12 million South Sudanese population was uprooted due to this conflict.
The two parties signed a power-sharing agreement in September and called the main rival fractions to assemble, screen and train their own forces to create a national army before forming a unity government in the following month.
Earlier on Thursday, when addressing the visitors, Pope pointed out that the South Sudanese people are exhausted by war and the leaders had a duty to build their young nation injustice He also expressed his wish to visit the country along with other religious leaders to solidify the peace.
Among others who attended the retreat were the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who is a spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican community, members of the South Sudan Council of Churches and other Catholic and Presbyterian Church leaders from Africa.