Pope Francis said on Saturday Churches in South Sudan “cannot remain neutral” but must raise their voices against injustice and abuse of power, as he and two other Christian leaders conducted a peace mission to the world’s newest country.
On his first full day in South Sudan, Francis addressed Catholic bishops, priests and nuns in the cathedral of St. Therese in the capital Juba as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Church of Scotland held services elsewhere.
South Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011 but plunged into civil war in 2013 with ethnic groups turning on each other. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, bouts of inter-ethnic fighting have continued to kill and displace large numbers of civilians.
“Brothers and sisters, we too are called to intercede for our people, to raise our voices against the injustice and the abuses of power that oppress and use violence to suit their own ends,” Francis said, adding that religious leaders “cannot remain neutral before the pain caused by acts of injustice”.
There are 2.2 million internally displaced people in South Sudan, out of a total population of about 11.6 million, and another 2.3 million have fled the country as refugees, according to the United Nations.
Extreme poverty and hunger are rife, with two thirds of the population needing humanitarian assistance as a result of conflict as well as three years of catastrophic floods.
At the cathedral, Francis heard a nun tell of how two of her fellow sisters were killed in an ambush near Juba in 2021.
“Let us ask ourselves what it means for us to be ministers of God in a land scarred by war, hatred, violence, and poverty,” Francis said, and later led prayers for them.
“How can we exercise our ministry in this land, along the banks of a river bathed in so much innocent blood?” he asked, referring to the White Nile that runs through the country.
Francis, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Church of Scotland Moderator Iain Greenshields will meet people displaced by war and hear their stories later on Saturday.
The three Christian leaders, on an unprecedented “pilgrimage of peace”, will later take part in an open-air ecumenical prayer vigil at a mausoleum for South Sudan’s liberation hero John Garang, with 50,000 people expected to attend.
The joint visit is the first of its kind in Christian history.
South Sudan is predominantly Christian and tens of thousands of people lined the streets of the capital Juba to welcome the pope with singing, drumming and ululations on Friday when he arrived from a visit to Democratic Republic of Congo.
In a strongly worded speech to South Sudan’s leaders including its previously warring President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar, Francis implored them to renounce violence, ethnic hatred and corruption.
At the same event, Welby said he was grieved that violence had continued after the 2018 peace deal and a 2019 gathering at the Vatican during which the pope knelt to kiss the feet of the warring leaders, begging them to bring peace to South Sudan.
“I am sad that we still hear of such tragedy. We hoped and prayed for more. We expected more. You promised more,” Welby told the assembled leaders.
In his own speech, Kiir said his government was firmly committed to consolidating peace in South Sudan.