The Pope's Africa Visit May Spotlight South Sudan
Pope Francis is making his first trip to Africa this month. Catholics in South Sudan are praying that a few words from the Holy Father on African soil might help bring lasting peace and create a stable future for a war-ravaged nation that is among the poorest and least developed on the continent. The pope's visit provides a tremendous opportunity because the Catholic Church is a respected, unifying institution that has educated many leaders and transcends tribal animosity.
The people of South Sudan had hoped their long and troubled land had taken a turn toward peace and stability in July 2011. At that time, an overwhelming majority of South Sudanese voted to secede from Sudan. South Sudan became Africa’s newest country, but peace and stability proved elusive. Today, ongoing disputes with the Islamic government of Sudan and a bloody struggle for power between the President Salva Kiir (Dinka tribe) and his sacked deputy, former vice president Riek Machar (Nuer tribe), has again plunged South Sudan into crisis. The new nation was barely on its feet when political disputes between Kiir and Machar sparked civil war in December 2013. The two sides signed a peace agreement this past August, but a real and lasting end to the conflict remains tenuous at best.
The world is hoping that Pope Francis might act as an agent of peace among the people of South Sudan and between Kiir and Machar, both of whom are Christians. The pontiff needs to use his tremendous authority to bring them together to act in the best interests of this fragile country.
The fighting between government troops and rebel factions over the last two years left thousands of civilians dead, and more than 2.2 million people have fled their homes. Entire villages were burned to the ground, and mass killings were a way of life and death. The town of Malakal, in northeast South Sudan, changed hands multiple times and now lies ruined and abandoned. People are afraid to return to their homes and farms. And so, the fields remain fallow; whatever was planted has long been destroyed. Roughly one-third of South Sudan’s 12 million people now face what United Nations agencies are calling “severe food insecurity” – a fitting topic for a pope who has made addressing poverty a major theme of his pontificate.
Even before the latest round of fighting, South Sudan had long been one of Africa’s poorest and least developed regions. Prior to their independence from Sudan, the South Sudanese had endured 22 years of warfare and genocide at the hands of the radical Islamic government of Sudan’s leader, Omar al-Bashir. At least 1.5 million innocents lost their lives during this indicted war criminal’s reign. Another 4 million fled into the bush or to neighboring countries where many remain today.
The Catholic Church is today, as it has been for decades, critical to the future of South Sudan. Because of its extensive and long presence in the region, the church is more stable and enjoys a greater level of acceptance among the people than the government of South Sudan. This is why many believe that the Catholic Church could hold the key to peace in the region and help South Sudan avoid the devastating tribal conflict that nearly destroyed Rwanda.
The church has the trust of the people because it has always been there, living and dying alongside them. When many humanitarian aid groups were denied access or left due to increased violence, the church remained. Through its parishes, its schools, its bush dispensaries and hospitals, the church has ministered to the basic needs of the South Sudanese. It was, for many, the only source of food, water, medicines and lifesaving medical care.
Along this line, Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala works with many nonprofit organizations to meet many of the critical needs of the people of his Tombura-Yambio Diocese and other regions of South Sudan. The bishop is providing emergency food aid, clean water, and medical services to thousands. In addition, he is working to rebuild basic infrastructure—houses, churches and schools—and leading the fragile nation to what he prays will be a future of peace and reconciliation.
Another influential Catholic on the ground in South Sudan is Brother Bernhard Hengl. This Comboni missionary from Germany works with the South Sudan Bishops' Conference to direct church resources to help the neediest. When fighting began in Malakal, Brother Hengl arranged for the delivery of sorghum, a basic food staple, to thousands of people who had fled the fighting. This was the first real food they had received after surviving (barely) for weeks in the bush on berries, leaves, and roots.
Missionaries and clergy like Bishop Kussala and Brother Hengl will continue to play a critical role in keeping South Sudan from generating into complete chaos. But a few words from Pope Francis on African soil -- a simple call to the priests, religious and Catholic lay people of South Sudan to be agents of grace -- could do wonders to nurture a lasting peace settlement and a brighter future for this new nation and its people.