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ConflictsSouth Sudan

Pope in South Sudan: Church cannot be 'neutral' on injustice

February 4, 2023

In the first papal visit to South Sudan, Pope Francis is highlighting the plight of women in the young nation who face the world's highest material mortality rate and are subject to widespread sexual violence.

Children welcome pope Francis before his meeting with bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, seminarians and lay pastoral workers of South Sudan in the Cathedral of Saint Therese in Juba, South Soudan, on February 4, 2023.
Visitors tried to impress upon the religious leaders the need for reconciliationImage: Vatican Media/abaca/picture alliance

Pope Francis urged Catholic bishops, priests and nuns in South Sudan to speak out against abuse of power and injustice in the country during an address on Saturday.

Francis is taking part in an unprecedented "pilgrimage of peace" to South Sudan along with Protestant Christian church leaders in an effort to urge the country's leaders to recommit to implementing a peace deal.

South Sudan, a predominantly Christian nation that broke away from Sudan in 2011, has seen years of inter-ethnic fighting that has displaced millions since a civil war broke out in 2013. A peace deal in 2018 formally ended the war, but violence has continued.

What did the Pope say?

It is South Sudan's first papal visit, with Francis joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Church of Scotland Moderator Iain Greenshields.

During an address at the cathedral of St. Therese in Juba, Francis urged Catholic clergy and nuns to show empathy for those affected by violence and to speak out for their communities.

"Brothers and sisters, we too are called to intercede for our people, to raise our voices against the injustice and the abuses of power that oppress and use violence to suit their own ends," Francis said.

He added that religious leaders "cannot remain neutral before the pain caused by acts of injustice."

Pope Francis shakes the hand of a young girl during a visit to Juba, South Sudan
The pope has also placed an emphasis on the plight of women and girls in South SudanImage: Vatican Media/ipa/picture alliance

During the address, Francis listened as a nun described how two of her fellow sisters were killed in an ambush near the capital Juba in 2021.

"Let us ask ourselves what it means for us to be ministers of God in a land scarred by war, hatred, violence, and poverty," Francis said.

'We expected more,' says Archbishop of Canterbury

On Saturday, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church of Scotland Moderator held a separate service in South Sudan's capital.

The three church leaders are also due to meet people who have been internally displaced by the conflict. They will then hold an open-air ecumenical prayer vigil where 50,000 people are expected.

The pope is also using his visit to highlight the plight of women and girls in the country.

On Friday, Francis and the two other church leaders delivered a strongly-worded speech to the country's previously warring leaders, President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, decried the continuation of violence in South Sudan despite the 2018 peace deal. He also referenced a gathering at the Vatican in 2019 where Francis knelt to kiss the feet of the two warring leaders in an appeal for peace.

"I am sad that we still hear of such tragedy. We hoped and prayed for more. We expected more. You promised more," Welby told the leaders on Friday.

In his own speech, President Kiir said his government was committed to peace in South Sudan.

Pope Francis tells the world to 'stop exploiting Africa'

What is the situation in South Sudan?

An estimated 380,000 people were killed during the five-year civil war in South Sudan that erupted soon after the country's independence in 2011.

Despite the 2018 peace deal that technically ended the war, flare-ups of violence continue to kill and displace people. According to UN data, there are approximately 2.2 million internally displaced people in South Sudan.

Women and girls are especially impacted by the violence. In a report last year, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said women live a "hellish existence" in the country.

"South Sudanese women are physically assaulted while being raped at gunpoint, typically held down by men while being abused by others. They are told not to resist in the slightest way, and not to report what happened, or they will be killed,'' the report said.

South Sudanese women and girls are subject to widespread sexual assault, have the world's highest maternal mortality rate, and are often married before the age of 18.

Prior to his papal visit to South Sudan, Francis traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to raise awareness for those affected by conflict.

rs/msh (Reuters, AP, AFP)

Pope's visit to Congo draws attention to neglected crises