Hope, excitement, and expectations are rising in South Sudan ahead of the ecumenical pilgrimage of peace by the Pope and world Protestant leaders.
Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church; Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, UK; and Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland; will travel to the world’s youngest nation on 3- 5 February on a spiritual and peace mission.
Barely a week to the visit, Juba, the capital city has been exuberant, with billboards coming up and flowers being planted. Roads are being tarmacked and churches renovated in preparation for the rare and unique visit. T-shirts with images of the leaders have also appeared, as traders in the markets increased stocks of Christian items related to the visit, including tiny crucifixes and rosaries, according to sources in the capital.
“The people are aware of the visit and are very excited. They were disappointed following its cancellation in July, but they are now happy and ready,” said Rt. Rev. Thomas Tut Puot Mut, moderator of the Presbyterian Evangelical Church. “It is a privilege as South Sudanese church to have these leaders coming.”
Bishop Arkajelo Wani Lemi, a former chairman of the South Sudan Council of Churches, highlighted the country’s eagerness to welcome the leaders.
“There is great expectation what the visit will bring forth,” said the leader from the Africa Inland Church, while pointing at the growing casual talk on streets, for example, that the Pope was second to Jesus and the leaders will heal the sick.
On arrival, the leaders will meet president Salva Kiir Mayardit and other government officials, members of civil society, and the diplomatic corps. On the second day, the global leaders will meet bishops, priests, and other leaders of their denominations separately, and later hear stories from internally displaced persons. In the afternoon, the three will preside over a joint prayer rally at the mausoleum of the late John Garang’, the founding father of the nation. On the final day, the pope will in the morning hold a mass at the mausoleum before departing for Rome.
Mut said, while the leaders will pray for love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and unity, the main prayers will be about peace.
“We know that there are others who pray with us, but this time, global leaders are coming to be together and spend time with believers. We feel that we are not alone and the body of Christ is concerned with our plight,” he said.
Rev. Joseph Alhag Lo Abel, an Anglican priest in the capital, said the church and church leaders were very optimistic about the outcome of the visit because the world leaders had come to meet South Sudan people in their country.
“When people see the leaders coming, they become hopeful that their country can come out of the situation of war. A solution cannot be found without an initiative,” said the priest, while expressing hope the visit will renew the stalled peace talks between the faction leaders that the Vatican had started.
South Sudan became independent in 2011, but a deadly war broke out barely two years after. By the time a 2018 peace deal ended the countrywide fighting, an estimated 400,000 people lay dead and millions displaced. At the moment, the country is struggling with inter-ethnic armed clashes which agencies link to competition for resources.