Pope Francis kneels, kisses feet of South Sudan leaders

Pope Francis kneels, kisses feet of South Sudan leaders

The Vatican, together with the South Sudan Council of Churches and the Rome-based Sant' Egidio worldwide peace group, brought the leaders together for prayer and preaching inside the pope's residence in an attempt to heal divisions. It would have been the first joint pastoral visit by the leaders of the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, but the increasing deterioration of the security situation in South Sudan caused by the ongoing civil war meant that the visit had to be shelved.

"Sudan laboured so hard to restore peace and stability and because of that we have the current prevailing peace agreement in South Sudan and it is a guarantor", Martin Elia Lomoro, South Sudan's cabinet affairs minister, said in a meeting with global ceasefire monitors. There will be many problems but they will not overcome us. This way, Francis said, they can "become fathers of the nation".

The 82-year-old pope's gesture of going on his knees and kissing the feet of the leaders had left many present in the room surprised.

"There will be struggles, disagreements among you but keep them within you, inside the office, so to speak", Francis said in Italian as an aide translated into English.

The pope expressed his heartfelt hope that hostilities would finally cease, that the armistice would be respected, that political and ethnic divisions would be surmounted, and that there would be a lasting peace for all those citizens who dream of beginning to build the nation.

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The two sides signed a power-sharing deal in September calling on the main rival factions to assemble, screen and train their respective forces to create a national army before the formation of a unity government.

Several ceasefire agreements and peace pacts have failed to end the fighting, which has led to the death of an estimated 380,000 people, uprooted a third of the population, forced almost two-and-a-half million into exile, and triggered bouts of deadly starvation. Many people have lost their lives or been forced from their homes or face starvation because of five years of civil war.

Machar had fled to Democratic Republic of Congo before he went to South Africa and lastly returned to Sudan which played a great role in enhancing communication between the two leaders.

"I had never seen anything like that".

The unprecedented event was proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and approved by Pope Francis. This has certainly held true for South Sudan as recent government insurgency campaigns in Yei and Wau have included killings, looting, and burning of civilian property.

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