Answering questions in the Anglican parish, on Rome Sunday, February 26, Francis announced his intention to visit the African country at war, together with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Francis was talking about how ‘young churches’ have a lot to teach us. He said: “Young churches have more vitality and a strong need to work together. For example, I’m studying the possibility of a trip to South Sudan. Why? Because the Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic bishops have come to me and the three told me: ‘Please come to South Sudan, only for one day, but don’t come alone, come with Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury’. We are thinking whether it is possible, the situation is so bad over there … But we must do it because the three together want peace, and they work together for peace”.
Pope Francis has pointed out how the ecumenical invitation came from leaders of the three main Christian confessions in South Sudan, who hope the presence of the Bishop of Rome and the Primate of the Anglican Communion can help pacification.
On February 22, during the general audience, Pope Francis made a strong appeal in favour of South Sudan. Of particular concern, he said, was the painful news coming from the battered southern Sudan, where a fratricidal conflict is compounded by a severe food crisis which has hit the Horn of Africa region, and condemns millions of people to death by starvation, including many children.
At this time, it is more necessary than ever that all “commit not to stop at making statements, but also to provide concrete food aid and to allow it to reach suffering populations”.
Meanwhile, the Catholic bishops of South Sudan said in a statement: “Despite appeals to all parties to stop the war, killings, rapes, forced displacement, attacks on churches and destruction of property continue throughout the country”.
The document continues: “Discrimination takes place on the basis of ethnicity, and those who are perceived to be ‘enemies’ are killed, raped, tortured, burned, beaten, robbed, harassed, imprisoned, forced to abandon their homes and prevented from harvesting their crop”.
Even those who are refugees in UN camps or churches are threatened and harassed by security forces. “These are forms of collective punishment are prohibited by the laws of war provided for by the Geneva Convention”, underline the Bishops.
The level of violence has become pathological. Not only are civilians killed but “their bodies are burned and mutilated”, while, in several cases, whole family groups have been burned alive inside their homes.
The Bishops are worried by the fact that “elements of the government appear to be suspicious of the Church”. Though in some areas the Church has been able to mediate local peace deals, these can easily be undermined if government officials are removed and replaced with hardliners who do not welcome Church efforts for peace.
Finally, the Bishops denounce persecution against priests, religious men and women, and lay people. The message concludes by reiterating the Church’s commitment to work with all to restore peace in the country.
Since it became an independent state in 2011, South Sudan has had to deal with vast amounts of inter-ethnic fighting. In 2013, when President Kiir accused Vice President Machar of plotting against him, a civil war began.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the conflict has devastated the lives of millions of South Sudanese, and displaced more than 2.3 million people since December 2013. Around 1.6 million of them have been displaced internally in South Sudan, and over 600,000 are refugees in neighbouring countries.