Pope Francis flew home Sunday with the leaders of the Anglican and Scottish churches after a joint trip to violence-plagued South Sudan, where he appealed at a final mass for people to lay down their “weapons of hatred”.
Large crowds of ecstatic worshippers had gathered in the capital Juba to see the 86-year-old pontiff, who 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.
Addressing a crowd local authorities estimated at around 70,000, he voiced hope that the people of South Sudan would “build a reconciled future”.
It was the first papal visit to the largely Christian country, which achieved independence from mainly Muslim Sudan in 2011 after a long and bloody civil war.
Two years later, South Sudan was at war with itself, 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.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who joined Francis on the trip alongside the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, said the visit left him with a “deep sense of encouragement”.
“What we now need is a serious change of heart from the leadership. They have to agree to a process that will lead to a peaceful transition of power,” Welby told reporters on the plane taking the three religious leaders back to Rome.
“There has to be an end to corruption and gun smuggling and the amassing of huge quantities of weapons,” he said.
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, after staying overnight to join Sunday’s mass.
On Saturday, Francis met victims of the civil war brought to Juba from various camps, and urged the government to resume the peace process and restore “dignity” to those affected by conflict.
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.
“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 was 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.
On Friday, Francis told 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.”
At a 2019 Vatican retreat, the pope had knelt and kissed the feet of the two leaders, whose personal armies had been accused of horrific war crimes, asking them to respect the ceasefire.
But four years later, the oil-rich country remains mired in intractable conflict, compounded by poverty, hunger and natural disasters.
Trips to India, Mongolia
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.
Asked about his health on the plane Sunday, he said it was “not like at the beginning of my papacy, this knee is annoying, but I go on, slowly, and we’ll see”.
Francis confirmed he would visit Marseille, in the south of France, on September 23, head to India in 2024 and said the Vatican was looking at a potential trip to Mongolia.
By ClÃ©ment MELKI with Nick Perry in Juba