Pope Francis on Saturday will meet victims of South Sudan’s civil war, a day after delivering an impassioned plea for the country’s leaders to recommit to peace for the sake of their long-suffering people.
Francis is making the first papal visit to South Sudan since it gained independence from Sudan in 2011 and then plunged into a brutal ethnic conflict that left the young nation divided and traumatised.
Some 380,000 people died in five years of bloodshed before the civil war formally ended in 2018, with a ceasefire between warring leaders who remain in power today.
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But the country remains fragile and violent, and Francis, who tried to broker peace between the rival parties, is visiting South Sudan as it lurches from one crisis to the next.
At his first event Saturday, the wheelchair-bound pope met South Sudan’s religious leaders, who work with the poor and marginalised and are deeply respected in the devout country where 60 percent of its 12 million people are Christian.
He said they must “step into the middle of (people’s) sufferings and tears,” adding that the Church had a duty to be “willing to dirty its hands for people”.
Several thousands turned out early to wait for the 86-year-old pontiff in the courtyard of the Cathedral of Saint Therese, many waving national flags and ululating as they gave him a jubilant welcome.
“We came here to receive his blessings. This is all about peace. Pope Francis is not even walking, and he is still coming here to encourage our leaders,” said John Makuei, 24.
He said he arrived before dawn, so he did not miss this “historic day”.
“I am so so happy,” said 36-year-old Adongpiny Harriet, wiping away sweat after she joined an impromptu dance outside the cathedral following the pope’s blessing.
“It is the first time to see papa in my country. I feel so privileged.”