Pope urges end to ethnic hatred at open-air mass in South Sudan

Pope Francis

Pope Francis (left) blessing a child during the holy mass at the John Garang Mausoleum in Juba, South Sudan on February 5, 2023. 

Photo credit: AFP/Vatican Media

Juba, South Sudan  

Pope Francis appealed Sunday to the people of South Sudan to lay down their "weapons of hatred" at an open-air mass on the final day of his pilgrimage to a country blighted by violence and poverty.

Large crowds of ecstatic worshippers streamed into the John Garang Mausoleum in the capital Juba to see the 86-year-old pontiff, who has made peace and reconciliation the theme of his three-day trip to the world's newest nation.

"Let us lay down the weapons of hatred and revenge... Let us overcome the dislikes and aversions that over time have become chronic and risk pitting tribes and ethnic groups against one another," Francis said in his homily.

He voiced hope that the people of South Sudan, a country that has been at war for about half its young life, would "build a reconciled future".

People waved national flags and sang "Welcome holy father to South Sudan" as the Argentine pontiff moved through the crowds in his popemobile before delivering the mass to an audience local authorities put at around 70,000.

Francis later flew out of Juba for Rome. He is due to hold a press conference on board his plane along with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, who joined him on the trip.

It was his first papal visit to the largely Christian country since it achieved independence from mainly Muslim Sudan in 2011 after a long and bloody civil war.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis (left) looks on during the Ecumenical prayer at the John Garang Mausoleum in Juba, South Sudan, on February 4, 2023.

Photo credit: AFP

Despite the initial revelry in 2011, South Sudan was at war with itself just two years later in a conflict that killed nearly 400,000 people and displaced four million.

A peace deal was signed in 2018 between President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar but many of its conditions remain unmet and violence continues to roil the country.

Hope for change

The wheelchair-bound pontiff, who himself tried to broker peace during the civil war, received a rapturous welcome throughout his visit.

"I came to see the pope bring change to the country. For many years we've been at war, but we need peace. We want the pope to pray for us," said James Agiu, 24.

He was among the many who stayed overnight to join the mass at the John Garang mausoleum -- built in honour of South Sudan's rebel hero who was killed in a helicopter crash in 2005.

On Saturday, Francis met victims of the civil war, who were brought to Juba from various camps, and urged the government to resume the peace process and restore "dignity" to those affected by conflict.

Salva Kiir, Pope

President of South Sudan Salva Kiir (right) greeting Pope Francis before the Pope departed South Sudan, at the Juba International Airport in Juba on February 5, 2023. 

Photo credit: AFP/Vatican Media

With 2.2 million internally displaced people (IDPs), and another two million outside the country, South Sudan is witness to the worst refugee crisis in Africa.

A new start

"I have been suffering in my life. That is why I'm here, so the pope can bless me and my family," 32-year-old Josephine James told AFP at Sunday's mass.

"Ever since he arrived, people have been happy. I am very happy."

The papal visit has been closely followed in the devoutly Christian country of 12 million people, where church leaders played a key role in protecting civilians during times of conflict.

Francis made a pointed speech on Friday telling the country's leaders they need to make "a new start" toward reconciliation and end the greed and power struggles tearing the nation apart.

"Future generations will either venerate your names or cancel their memory, based on what you now do," he told an audience that included Kiir and Machar. "No more bloodshed, no more conflicts, no more violence."

War crimes

The pope had promised in 2019 to travel to South Sudan, when he hosted Kiir and Machar at a Vatican retreat and asked them to respect the ceasefire.

In scenes that reverberated in South Sudan, Francis knelt and kissed the feet of two foes whose personal armies had been accused of horrific war crimes.


 An attendee holds a picture of Pope Francis as he presides over the holy mass at the John Garang Mausoleum in Juba, South Sudan, on February 5, 2023. 

Photo credit: Simon Maina | AFP

But four years later, the oil-rich country remains mired in intractable conflict, compounded by poverty, hunger and natural disasters.

In a sign of the challenges, at least 21 people were killed in a cattle raid on the eve of Francis's visit in what local authorities termed a reprisal attack in Central Equatoria state.

The pope's stop in South Sudan followed a four-day visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, another resource-rich country plagued by persistent conflict and also often overlooked by the world.

The trip -- Francis's fifth to Africa -- was initially scheduled for 2022 but had to be postponed because of problems with the pope's knee.