Pope Francis leaves the Democratic Republic of the Congo for South Sudan on a peace mission
Pope Francis on Friday kicked off a three-day visit to South Sudan, the world’s newest country, with the aim of promoting peace and reconciliation in the conflict-torn country, which is still reeling from the effects of civil war and grinding poverty.
Francis is due to arrive in Juba at 3:00 pm (1300 GMT) for the first-ever papal visit to South Sudan since the Christian-majority country gained independence from Muslim-majority Sudan in 2011 after decades of conflict.
Peace has eluded South Sudan, too, with a five-year civil war that has left 380,000 dead, four million displaced, and plunged the young nation into abject poverty.
The 86-year-old pope is expected to meet victims of the conflict, as well as the country’s political and ecclesiastical leaders, between prayers and an outdoor mass that is expected to draw large crowds.
The visit – Francis’ fifth to Africa – was initially scheduled for 2022 but had to be postponed due to the pope’s knee problems.
The affliction made him dependent on a wheelchair and saw his itinerary shrink in both countries.
He will be joined in South Sudan by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Director of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in what is described as a “journey for peace”.
Hope for peace
The visit was long expected in a religious country of 12 million people where the church is a highly respected institution with a long history of peacebuilding.
“I am so excited to see him,” Hana Zakaria, 20, told AFP, one of dozens of pilgrims who walked nine days from the town of Rumbek to Juba, a journey of about 400 km (250 km). Mel), trying to see the Pope.
Francis promised in 2019 to travel to South Sudan when he hosted the country’s two warring leaders, President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, at a Vatican retreat and asked them to honor their people’s hard-won ceasefire.
In scenes that echoed in South Sudan, where 60% of the population is Christian, the Argentinean knelt and kissed the feet of two adversaries whose personal armies had been accused of horrific war crimes.
But four years later, South Sudan is still mired in intractable conflict, and hopes are pinned on Francis to encourage much-needed unity in a country riven by ethnic and political divisions.
“We suffered a lot. Now, we want peace,” said Robert Michael, a 36-year-old businessman, below one of Juba’s many tall billboards welcoming the Pope.
Friday has been declared a public holiday. South Sudanese officials encouraged participation in large numbers, but did not give an estimate of the number of people expected to attend the pope’s appearances.
The roads in the capital witnessed looting for the occasion, and security officials said on Wednesday that an additional 5,000 police and soldiers would be on the streets.
Visit the Landmark Democratic Republic of the Congo
The visit comes after a three-day layover in Kinshasa, the capital of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, where bloody conflict in the mineral-rich east has been high on the pope’s agenda.
It was the first time since 1985 that a pope had visited the deeply troubled country – the size of the western European continent – which has the largest Catholic following in Africa.
Before boarding his plane on Friday, the pope – looking exhausted – urged Congolese bishops to focus on the people and not just “political activism”.
About 40 percent of the DRC’s population of more than 100 million is Catholic, according to estimates, and the Church has enormous influence.
Earlier during his trip, Francis lashed out at “brutal atrocities” after hearing harrowing accounts from eastern Congo, including testimonies from victims of sexual violence and mutilation at the hands of militia.
The Pope also called for the mercy of God.
“May it change the hearts of those who commit monstrous atrocities that bring shame to all of humanity,” the pope said.
He added that the conflict was driven by greed for resources at the expense of innocent victims and denounced the “economic colonialism” of the volatile region.
Francis also hosted a huge mass at Kinshasa airport and appealed to Congolese youth to renounce corruption, in a packed stadium event attended by tens of thousands.
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