Pope Francis knelt and kissed the feet of South Sudan’s rival leaders in an unprecedented act of humbleness to encourage them to strengthen the African country’s faltering peace process.
At the closed two-day retreat in the Vatican for the African leaders, the pope asked South Sudan’s president and opposition leader to proceed with the peace agreement despite growing difficulties.
Onlookers appeared to be stunned as the 82-year-old pope, who suffers from chronic leg pain, was helped by aides as he knelt with difficulty to kiss the shoes of the leaders and several other people in the room.
The pope usually holds a ritual washing of the feet with prisoners on Holy Thursday, but has never performed such a show of deference to political leaders.
Pope Francis kisses the feet of the leaders of South Sudan during a spiritual retreat in the Vatican
At the closed two-day retreat in the Vatican for the African leaders, the pope asked South Sudan’s president and opposition leader to proceed with the peace agreement
‘I express my heartfelt hope that hostilities will finally cease, that the armistice will be respected, that political and ethnic divisions will be surmounted, and that there will be a lasting peace for the common good of all those citizens who dream of beginning to build the nation,’ the pope said of South Sudan in his closing statement.
The spiritual retreat brought together President Salva Kiir and opposition head Riek Machar. Also present were Kiir’s three vice presidents. The pope kissed the feet of all of them.
South Sudanese Vice President Rebecca Nyandeng Garang said Francis’ actions moved her profoundly.
‘I had never seen anything like that. Tears were flowing from my eyes,’ she said.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 but two years later the country plunged into a bloody civil war, which left at least 400,000 people dead.
The two-day Vatican meeting was held a month before the end of the shaky peace deal’s pre-transition period. On May 12, opposition leader Machar is expected to return to South Sudan and once again serve as Kiir’s deputy.
Pope Francis poses with South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit (C-L), South Sudan opposition leader Riek Machar (C-R) and a delegation of South Sudan prelates at the Pope’s Santa Marta residence in the Vatican
However, the agreement, which was signed in September in Khartoum, the capital of neighboring Sudan, has been met with delays, missed deadlines and continued fighting with key aspects still not implemented.
A military coup in Sudan on Thursday fueled worries in South Sudan that the toppling of longtime President Omar al-Bashir could derail the already fragile peace deal.
‘Sudan has helped us with the peace deal. We hope that the new system will also focus on the agreement, ensuring that it will be implemented,’ said opposition leader Machar, who attended an evening prayer vigil for peace, held at Rome’s church of Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Timeline: South Sudan’s brutal civil war
South Sudan became independent from its northern neighbour Sudan on July 9 2011 after decades of bloody conflict.
But just two years later it plunged into its own intermittent civil war – when in December 2013 President Salva Kiir accused his former vice-president, Riek Machar, of orchestrating a plot to overthrow him and dismissed him.
Fighting quickly broke out between rival militias supporting Kiir and Machar, which soon became an ethnic conflict.
Thousands of people were killed throughout December in violent struggles, during which rebel militias seized control of several regional towns.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 but two years later the country plunged into a bloody civil war, which left at least 400,000 people dead
By April 2014, millions of people had been displaced and several ceasefires had been broken.
On 14 April, pro-Machar forces stormed the town of Bentiu, capital of the state of Northern Liech and killed hundreds of civilians in what has been described as the ‘worst massacre’ of the civil war.
On 9 May 2014, President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar signed an agreement recommitting to a ceasefire, but mere hours later both sides accused each other of violating the deal.
Throughout 2015, intermittent peace talks began and then later broke down, but meanwhile the fighting continued.
In April 2016 Riek Machar returned to Juba – the South Sudanese capital – to be sworn in as the first vice-president in a new unity government, but after three months he was sacked and went into exile.
In December 2016 a UN commission on human rights said that ethnic cleansing was taking place in several parts of the country, which President Salva Kiir denies.
The government and the UN declared a famine in parts of South Sudan in February 2017, in the first declaration of famine anywhere in the world in six years.
In February 2017 the UN declared that 5.5 million people would need food aid urgently, including 1.1 million children
The UN said the catastrophe was a direct result of the civil war leading to economic collapse and declared that 5.5 million people (almost half the population) would need food aid by July, including 1.1 million children.
In May 2017 President Kiir declared a unilateral ceasefire and launches national dialogue.
By August 2017 the number of refugees who had fled South Sudan reached 1.5 million, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
One year later, in August 2018 August – President Kiir signed a power-sharing agreement in Ethiopia with Machar and various opposition parties in a bid to end the brutal war.
But little hope has been generated from the shaky agreement, which critics say does not address many of the root problems that caused the conflict.
Over the course of the civil war 400,000 people were killed and nearly a third of the population uprooted.
The UN has documented war crimes included forced cannibalism, ethnic killing, government sponsored mass rapes – including of children, and the recruitment of more than 17,000 child soldiers.