By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
JUBA, South Sudan (CNS) — Three Christian religious leaders faced the president and vice presidents of South Sudan and told them it was time for them to get serious about peace, development and democracy.
Pope Francis, Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and the Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, made history Feb. 3 when they began an ecumenical pilgrimage to the world’s youngest nation, but one that has known war and violent conflicts for nine of the 11 years since independence.
Thousands of people lined the roads from the airport to the presidential palace, cheering the church leaders as they drove by. The crowd included many groups of a dozen or more women dressed alike, dancing and ululating as the visitors’ motorcade passed.
After closed-door meetings with President Salva Kiir and with Riek Machar and the four other vice presidents — meetings that lasted more than 40 minutes longer than planned — the Christian leaders told the country’s political leaders that it is time to stop their violent jostling for power and wealth and to start serving their people.
Speaking first, Kiir told those gathered in the palace garden, “This historic visit of these prominent global Christian leaders must compel us to engage in deep thinking about our recent history, especially on how it relates to the noble task of peace consolidation and the important projects of reconciliation and forgiveness among our people.”
The president used the occasion to announce officially a move rumored earlier: “the lifting of the suspension of the Rome Peace talks with the Holdout Groups,” a dozen armed groups that did not accept the 2018 peace accord. Kiir pulled out of the talks, hosted by the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio, in November.
In his speech, Pope Francis said the religious leaders’ words might seem “blunt,” but they flow from the heart and from the Gospel the three proclaim, the same Gospel most of the government leaders and an estimated 60% of the population claim to follow.
“Brothers and sisters,” he said, “it’s time for peace.”
Archbishop Welby recalled the retreat and meeting that he, Pope Francis and the Church of Scotland moderator at the time offered at the Vatican in 2019 for South Sudan’s political leaders.
“Pope Francis knelt to kiss the feet of each politician,” the archbishop said. “Almost five years later, we come to you in this way again: on our knees to wash feet, to listen, serve and pray with you.”
But the archbishop also was pointed about what the politicians had promised at the Vatican retreat and what has happened in the meantime. “When I remember the commitments made back in 2019, I am saddened” that little has changed.
Rev. Greenshields did not place all the responsibility at the feet of the politicians but pressed for cooperation among all members of society, including local church leaders.
“We need churches and leaders who are generous of heart, liberal of love and profligate with God’s grace,” he said. “We need leaders who care about the values by which our countries live, who care about the conditions in which people live, and who act out their faith in work amongst the most vulnerable and marginalized. These things make for peace.”
Kiir, 71, and Machar, 70, were leaders in South Sudan’s war for independence from Sudan, a dream that became a reality in 2011.
Pope Francis was blunt again when he asked them what they want their legacy to be: heroes of the fight for independence or warlords who failed their people.
“Future generations will either venerate your names or cancel their memory, based on what you now do,” the pope told them.
“We undertook this ecumenical pilgrimage of peace after hearing the plea of an entire people that, with great dignity, weeps for the violence it endures, its persistent lack of security, its poverty and the natural disasters that it has experienced,” the pope said. “Years of war and conflict seem never to end.”
In a land bathed by the White Nile, which flows through Juba and north to join the Blue Nile and form one mighty river, Pope Francis told the leaders they must work to make the land a garden again and not a “cemetery.”
Using Jesus’ words to the disciple who drew a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, Pope Francis said the Christian leaders’ message was simple: “No more of this!”
“In the name of God, of the God to whom we prayed together in Rome, of the God who is gentle and humble in heart, the God in whom so many people of this beloved country believe, now is the time to say, ‘No more of this,'” the pope repeated.
“No more bloodshed, no more conflicts, no more violence and mutual recriminations about who is responsible for it, no more leaving your people athirst for peace,” he said. “No more destruction: it is time to build! Leave the time of war behind and let a time of peace dawn!”
The political leaders, the pope said, also must renew the commitment they made in the 2018 peace accords to include young people, women and other civil society representatives in discussions about governing the country, rather than leaving everything to the former combatants.
“Women, mothers who know how life is generated and safeguarded, need to be increasingly involved in political life and decision-making processes,” he said. “Women need to be respected, for anyone who commits an act of violence toward a woman commits it toward God, who took flesh from a woman.”
“Before all else,” he said, “there is a need to combat poverty, which serves as the fertile soil in which hatred, divisions and violence take root.”
The poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable are the estimated 2 million South Sudanese who have been displaced by fighting, he said. “How many people have had to flee their homes, and now find themselves consigned to the margins of life as a result of conflicts and forced displacement.”
“Above all, there is a need to control the flow of weapons,” he said. “Many things are needed here, but surely not more instruments of death!”