CHURCH and political authorities in South Sudan gathered for a spiritual retreat in the Vatican this week organised and attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis.
The President of the Republic of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, and four of the five designated vice-presidents, including the former rebel leader Riek Machar, were among the guests. In 2013, Mr Machar challenged Mr Mayardit for the presidency, triggering the ongoing civil war.
Eight members of the South Sudan Council of Churches also attended the Vatican retreat. The group met for two days on Wednesday to “reflect and pray” for mission, peace, and prosperity for the South Sudanese people, a statement from the interim director of the Holy See Press Office, Alessandro Gisotti, said.
Despite a peace agreement signed last summer (News, 14 September 2018), millions of civilians are bearing the brunt of the civil conflict, which is estimated to have killed nearly 190,000 people. The fighting has created more than 2.2 million refugees since 2013.
Although a ceasefire is technically in place between the Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N), violence and unrest continues: there are frequent indiscriminate attacks on Christians (News, 8 March).
The “ecumenical and diplomatic” retreat had been organised by Archbishop Welby and the Pope, Mr Gisotti said, as a way for the Church to offer “a propitious occasion . . . for encounter and reconciliation, in a spirit of respect and trust, to those who in this moment have the mission and the responsibility to work for a future of peace and prosperity for the South Sudanese people”.
Archbishop Welby preached and Pope Francis delivered a discourse at the conclusion of the retreat on Thursday afternoon, after which participants were to be given a Bible signed by the church leaders and a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Revd John Chalmers, with the message “Seek that which unites. Overcome that which divides.”
Pope Francis told the gathering: “Peace was the very first word that the Lord spoke. Peace was his first gift to his apostles after his sorrowful Passion and his triumph after death. I offer that same greeting to you who come from a situation of great suffering for yourselves and your people, and for the people sorely tried by the consequences of conflict.”
God demanded much more of political and religious leaders, he said, who were entrusted to be guides to the people and leaders in peace, a friend to the marginalised and people in need.
“The purpose of this retreat is for us to stand together before God and to discern his will; it is to reflect on our own lives and the common mission God has entrusted to us; to recognise our enormous shared responsibility for the present and future of the people of South Sudan and commit ourselves to be reinvigorated and reconciled to the building up of your nation.”
The Ugandan RC Archbishop of Gulu, the Most Revd John Baptist Odama, and the President of the Jesuit Conference of Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar, Fr Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator SJ, also preached during the retreat.
A spokesperson for Lambeth Palace said on Wednesday: “It is hoped that a retreat will build confidence and trust between parties and give them spiritual nourishment.”