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Pope travels to South Sudan to call for peace as fighting kills 27


KINSHASA, Congo — Pope Francis on Friday inaugurated the second and final leg of his African pilgrimage by traveling to South Sudan in hopes of boosting the fledgling peace process in the fledgling country and drawing international attention to ongoing fighting and a deepening of the to address the humanitarian crisis.

Francis had a final appointment with the Congolese bishops in Kinshasa on Friday before flying to the South Sudanese capital Juba. There he joins the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields in a novel ecumenical quest for peace.

Together, the three represent the religious leadership of the predominantly Christian country, the youngest in the world to gain independence from Muslim-majority Sudan in 2011 but has been ravaged by civil war and conflict. The Christian leaders intend to make a joint appeal to South Sudan’s political leaders to put aside their differences and work for the good of their people.

Ongoing fighting, including attacks this week in the south that have killed 27 people, has displaced about 2 million people and hampered the implementation of a 2018 peace deal, but residents said Francis’ arrival in South Sudan on the first-ever papal visit helped them given hope.

“The Pope will bring us peace,” said Monica Lado, a 40-year-old from Juba, on the eve of the three leaders’ arrival.

A group of about 80 Catholics from downtown Rumbek walked for nine days, covering an estimated 300 kilometers, and arrived in Juba Thursday to cheers. The pilgrims were sore, tired and blistered, but said they hoped to attend Francis’ great Mass on Sunday and bring back blessings to their homes and families.

“When the Pope comes, I believe what killed us will stop,” said a smiling Victoria Yar, 58, as she sat down in a plastic chair to rest after the long journey.

Another pilgrim on the trek, Mary Yom, a mother of eight children, lost two children to violence. “Our country is being devastated by the conflict and we hope that the Pope will come with peace and that no one will be killed again,” she said.

Francis and Welby first announced plans to visit South Sudan in 2017, but security concerns repeatedly prevented the trip. In an effort to move the process forward, Francis led a joint prayer at the Vatican in 2019 and famously got on his hands and knees and kissed the feet of South Sudan’s rival leaders to plead with them to make peace.

But fighting continues, a testament to the violence that is sometimes eclipsed by gunfire and ethnic tensions in communities in one of the world’s poorest countries. At least 27 people were killed this week in Kajo-keji, Central Equatoria state, in recent communal violence between pastoralists and other residents. Kajo-keji District Commissioner Phanuel Dumo called the attack “barbaric” and urged calm.

Overall, the International Committee of the Red Cross this week reported an influx of wounded patients in recent months due to renewed clashes across the country. “We see horrific injuries and often air transport of patients from remote areas is the only way to save their lives,” said Pierre Dorbes, ICRC head of delegation in Juba.

President Salva Kiir vowed Thursday in comments on local radio station Eye that the country would never go to war again while he was in power.

“The Holy Father’s coming to South Sudan is your prayers that brought him,” he said.

But part of the stalemate on implementing the peace deal is ongoing political tensions between Kiir and MP Riek Machar, who led opposition forces during the country’s civil war and has long been keen to seize power himself. Critics say there is a lack of political will for the deal’s slow implementation in a country also hampered by allegedly widespread official corruption.

In Juba, it is widely expected that Francis will reiterate his call to men and all parties in South Sudan to commit to making progress on the deal and putting an end to corrupt practices. Delays have already forced the country’s first presidential election to be postponed by another two years.

In addition, Francis is expected to call for an end to the ongoing clashes and dire plight of women in South Sudan.

The UN Human Rights Commission in South Sudan reported last year that “widespread rape” was being used as a weapon by all armed groups across the country. It expressed shock at respondents, who described “staggeringly brutal and prolonged gang rapes committed on them by multiple men, often while their husbands, parents, or children were forced to look on and helplessly intervene.”

Additionally, the United Nations warned in November that about 9.4 million people out of a population of 12.4 million would need humanitarian assistance and protection this year, half a million more than in 2022. They led to ongoing violence, curbing access for aid groups and climate conditions such as flooding and drought are driving up demand.

At the same time, the United Nations has warned that the funds needed to increase aid have dwindled as donors redirect aid budgets to Ukraine and other crises.

Poni Mary, 45, who fled the country during the civil war in 2014 but returned to Juba last year, said she hoped South Sudanese would use the pope’s visit to forgive one another.

“If you still have sins, anger or problems with someone else in your heart, it will be difficult for you to receive God’s blessings,” she said.

Machol reported from Juba, South Sudan. Cara Anna and Evelyne Musambi in Nairobi contributed to this.

The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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