SHAFAQNA- In an unprecedented act, Pope Francis kissed the feet of South Sudan’s rival leaders during a two-day spiritual retreat at the Vatican and imploring the two men to maintain the tenuous peace that exists between them.
An old rivalry between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riek Machar is at the root of South Sudan’s civil war — a conflict that has raged on for years.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011; by December 2013, the country had devolved into a civil war that killed at least 400,000 people and displaced millions.
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, Daily Mail mentioned.
“There will be many problems, but they will not overcome us. Resolve your problems,” Reuters reported him as saying. Francis also urged them to keep disagreements “within you, inside the office, so to speak.”
“But in front of the people, hold hands united,” he said. “So, as simple citizens, you will become fathers of the nation.”
On Thursday, the pontiff appealed to Kiir and Machar to move forward, bending down to kiss their feet as he asked them to “stay in peace.”
The dramatic gesture happened only hours after the military in neighboring Sudan ousted its longtime leader, President Omar al-Bashir, after 30 years of authoritarian rule.
The war in South Sudan broke out in December 2013 after tensions between Kiir and Machar escalated. Soon, troops loyal to each man opened fire on each other in the capital of Juba. It quickly morphed into an ethnically fueled conflict and spread across the country, which just two years before had won independence from its northern neighbor, Sudan.
Last September, Mr. Kiir and his former vice president turned rebel leader, Mr. Machar, signed a peace agreement in Ethiopia.
However, the agreement has been met with delays, missed deadlines and continued fighting with key aspects still not implemented.
After years fighting for freedom from Khartoum, South Sudanese had little time to relish peace before the most recent conflict began. Since late 2013, millions have been displaced from their homes, some have been subjected to man-made famine and many are still going hungry. More than a million fled over the border into Uganda, sparking one of the biggest refugee crises in the world and carrying with them stories of mass rape, disease and starvation, Washington Post reported.
Mr. Bashir was, along with Uganda’s president, a guarantor of the deal. His departure is yet another complication for a war-torn country struggling to maintain peace, NY Times told.
Read more from Shafaqna: