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Pope's "pilgrimage of peace" in South Sudan is fraught with obstacles

Faithful arrive at the Martyrs' Stadium in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo for a meeting...   -  
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Democratic Republic Of Congo

Pope Francis arrives in South Sudan on Friday for a long-awaited "pilgrimage of peace" in the devout country torn by years of conflict, where leaders have so far turned a deaf ear to calls for reconciliation.

The Pope is making his first visit to the predominantly Christian East African country, which gained independence in 2011 after decades of struggle with Muslim-majority Sudan.

But independence for the world's youngest state has not brought peace and Francis arrives Friday for a three-day visit to a country devastated by violence.

The country plunged into a bloody five-year civil war between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar in 2013, which left 380,000 people dead and millions displaced. The armies of both sides are accused of war crimes.

In 2019, one year after a peace agreement, the Pope received the two brothers in the Vatican.

In a gesture that made a lasting impression, he kissed the feet of the two leaders, now in power as part of a government of national unity (with Mr Kiir as president and Mr Machar as vice-president).

"Your people are now looking forward to a better future, which can only be achieved through reconciliation and peace," he said.

But four years later, the violence continues, fuelled by the political elites.

"People are still being killed all over the country," says Ferenc David Marko, a researcher at the International Crisis Group.

With the current endemic violence, "things are worse than they were at the height of the conflict," he says.

- In South Sudan, people and the international community are hoping that the 86-year-old pope's visit can give the peace process a boost.

Francis will be accompanied by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the Anglican Church, and Iain Greenshields, the most senior figure in the Church of Scotland.

"I want to believe that this visit will be a turning point," says Father James Oyet Latansio, general secretary of the Council of Churches in Southern Sudan.

The international community, which fears that the country's fragile and protracted transition will collapse this year, hopes that Francis will have a better chance of getting the message across.

"He is in a unique position to, I think, engage with the leadership of the country" to bring about "sustainable peace", UN Special Envoy to South Sudan Nicholas Haysom told a press conference in January.

According to observers, the visit will also highlight the difficult work of the Church in areas where there are no government services and where aid workers are often attacked or even killed.

The trip will also draw attention to the situation in a country where nine million people, three-quarters of the population, need humanitarian aid.

"This visit will show that anything is possible. Change is possible and transformation is possible," Father Latansio hopes.

- Moral authority -

Religious leaders have "enormous credibility and moral authority" in this very devout country, says John Ashworth, a retired missionary with more than 40 years' experience in Sudan and South Sudan.

At the height of the fighting for independence, the church brokered peace and fed, protected and healed civilians on all sides in the total absence of government or international aid.

"The only institution that stayed on the ground with the people was the Church," says Ashworth. Ashworth.

When the civil war broke out in 2013, the clergy again defended civilians and denounced crimes.

Churches sheltering civilians were attacked and priests murdered, in a "shocking" turn against a sacrosanct institution, says Christopher Tounsel, associate professor of history at the University of Washington and a specialist in Christianity in South Sudan.

Religious leaders have been excluded from the peace talks, reducing their political influence and potential role as peace mediators to a trickle.

"The Church still has a voice that is respected, but not as much as it used to be," says John Ashworth.

Observers say Salva Kiir, a devout Catholic who was particularly moved by the Pope's gesture at the Vatican, is most likely to be sensitive to the Pope's message.

But the president is also engaged in major political manoeuvres - seeking to consolidate his power and ward off potential rivals as Riek Machar's ranks divide - that raise questions about the significance of the papal visit.

"I wonder if Pope Francis' visit will really bring about real change," says Christopher Tounsel, "or if it will just be a more symbolic trip.

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