A country racked by war and famine is counting on a visit from Pope Francis
South Sudan has a special place in the Pope’s heart. In February he designated a day of prayer for the world’s youngest state, which, because of war and famine, is in a near constant state of humanitarian crisis.
A month later he met a delegation of Christian leaders from the country, who urged him to visit. The Pope said he was “ready to come”. But a year after a planned trip with Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was postponed, there is still no word on when it might go ahead.
Most media assumed that the trip was just too dangerous. But the Archbishop said the visit was postponed to ensure it would have the maximum impact in helping to establish peace. He told the Tablet: “You’re playing a heavyweight card and you have got to get the timing right … You don’t waste a card like that on anything that is not going to work.”
Though there are conflicting reports about South Sudan’s exact religious composition, Christianity is the dominant religion, with a 2012 Pew Research Center report estimating that around 60 per cent are Christian, 33 per cent followers of African traditional religions, 6 per cent Muslim and the rest unaffiliated.
South Sudan’s churches are seen as pivotal in helping the country reach a point where a visit might be effective. Throughout 50 years of struggles, they have remained one of the country’s few stable institutions. In the face of shared adversity, they have embraced ecumenism, setting up the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC).
Priests and pastors brought humanitarian relief to civilians during South Sudan’s long wars for independence – often considered a fight for religious freedom for the mostly Christian south from the hardline Islamist government to the north. Church leaders emerged as the only players left with any credibility, lobbying the international community to support the southern cause while brokering peace between communities.
But they have been less able to influence politicians and generals in South Sudan’s latest civil war. This began in 2013 when government troops began massacring ethnic Nuer in the capital, Juba. Afterwards, the national army, called the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), split along ethnic lines during a violent uprising, pitting Dinka loyal to President Salva Kiir against Nuer led by the former vice president Riek Macher. Both sides committed atrocities.
The ethnic divide has extended to clergy too. In a speech in April James Wani Igga, South Sudan’s vice-president, accused priests of promoting violence.
John Ashworth, who has worked in South Sudan, including advising its churches, for more than 30 years, said that while individual clergy might be partisan, the church leadership had been united in calling for dialogue. The latest war had caught the SSCC unprepared, he said, but the body had now put forward a national action plan for peace.
Not everyone is optimistic, however. Carol Berger, an anthropologist who specialises in South Sudan, said she could see “no way” the Pope could visit. “The capital of Juba is a sad and troubled place these days,” she said. “People have left for their villages, or neighbouring countries. Shops and hotels have closed. The town is heavily militarised and there is hunger everywhere.”