Pope Francis wraps up Africa visit with plea for peace in South Sudan

Ending two of Africa's worst conflicts was the main theme of pontiff's visits to South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo

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Pope Francis on Sunday urged the people of South Sudan to resist the "venom of hatred" so they could achieve the peace and prosperity that have eluded them through years of bloody ethnic conflicts.

In his last public engagement before flying home, the Pope presided over an open-air mass on the grounds of a mausoleum for South Sudan's liberation hero John Garang, who died in 2005. The Vatican said 100,000 people attended.

The Pope, 86, wove his homily around themes that have dominated his trip to the world's youngest nation — reconciliation and mutual forgiveness for past wrongs. He begged worshippers to shun the "blind fury of violence".

Many in the crowd sang, drummed and ululated as the Pope entered the dusty area, and his homily was repeatedly interrupted by loud cheers.

Predominantly Christian South Sudan broke away from Muslim-majority Sudan in 2011, but two years later the new nation plunged into a civil war in which 400,000 people have been killed. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, bouts of fighting have continued to kill and displace large numbers of civilians.

At the end of the service, in a farewell address shortly before heading to the airport, the Pope thanked the people of South Sudan for the affection they showed him.

"Dear brothers and sisters, I return to Rome with you even closer to my heart," he told them. "Never lose hope. And lose no opportunity to build peace. May hope and peace dwell among you. May hope and peace dwell in South Sudan!"

The Pope has had a longstanding interest in South Sudan. In one of the most remarkable gestures of his papacy, he knelt to kiss the feet of the country's previously warring leaders during a meeting at the Vatican in 2019.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the global Anglican Communion, and Iain Greenshields, moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, accompanied the Pope.

The "pilgrimage of peace" was the first time in Christian history that leaders of the Catholic, Anglican and Reformed traditions have conducted a joint foreign visit.

The three left the South Sudanese capital Juba on the same flight and were expected to land in Rome at 5.15pm (1615 GMT).

Earlier on his Africa trip, the Pope visited Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the continent's largest Roman Catholic community, where he celebrated mass for a million people and heard harrowing stories from some harmed by war in the east of the country.

Among the worshippers in Juba was Ferida Modon, 72, who lost three of her children in the conflict.

"I want peace to come to South Sudan. Yes, I believe that his visit will change the situation. We are now tired of conflict," she said. "We want God to listen to our prayers."

Jesilen Gaba, 42, a widow with four children, said: "The fact that the three churches united for the sake of South Sudan, this is the turning point for peace. I want the visit to be a blessing to us. We have been at war, we have lost many people."

Francis made another appeal for an end to the tribalism, financial wrongdoing and political cronyism at the root of many of the country's problems.

He urged the people to build "good human relationships as a way of curbing the corruption of evil, the disease of division, the filth of fraudulent business dealings and the plague of injustice".

South Sudan has some of the largest crude oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa but a UN report in 2021 said the country's leaders had diverted "staggering amounts of money and other wealth" from public coffers and resources.

The government dismissed the report and has denied accusations of widespread corruption.

Updated: February 05, 2023, 12:55 PM