By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
At All Saints Episcopal Church in Rome on 26 February 2017, Pope Francis announced that with his collaborators he was considering the possibility of going to South Sudan. He explained that the Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic South Sudanese bishops had together approached him asking him to visit South Sudan along with the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Unfortunately, due to security concerns, a planned October 2017 visit had to be canceled.
A prayer service for South Sudan and the Congo with the Pope was then organized in Rome last November 23, explains Sr Yudith Pereira, Executive Director of the International Headquarters of Solidarity with South Sudan. The Justice and Peace committees of both groups representing the superiors general of men and women religious in Rome, the Diocese of Rome, and other groups organized that prayer service. Then in January 2018 a round table was convoked at the Pontifical University Urbaniana. “Following that, the Pope gave us the surprise of convoking this day,” Sr Yudith says.
Why these two countries?
Sr Yudith explains that there is a connection between the two countries. “They have similar problems: political, tribal, civil war, weapons, natural resources being exploited by multinationals.” In addition, she says that there is a lack of media coverage communicating what is happening in the South Sudan and in the Congo. Media attention focuses on conflicts taking place in Syria and Iran, but not in these two conflict-ridden nations. By the Pope speaking, and others organizing things, the news will get out about what is happening she says.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo
Between 1998 and 2002, about 5 million people died in the Congo in what has been called “the First African World War.” Rich in petroleum, diamonds, coltan, cobalt, silicon and uranium, local and international interests have turned the country into a battleground. In addition, Joseph Kabila, the Congolese President, has created political unrest because he refuses to step down from power after his mandate expired in December 2016. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees in Kivu and Ituri. Mass graves have been found and the military is responsible for widespread violence against civilians.
South Sudan is the youngest country in the world. It was born after a referendum in 2011 after the longest civil war in the history of Africa which began in 1960, shortly after Sudan gained its independence from Britain, until 2011. Two years later, in December 2013, followers of Salva Kiir, the president, and those of his former vice-president Riek Machar began armed conflict in the capital of Juba. Since then about twenty cease fires have been violated. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the war. It is estimated that up to 25% of the country’s twelve million people have been displaced because of the war. Around 1.5 million of these displaced persons have taken refuge in neighboring countries. Some estimates say that half of the population is facing starvation. One of the atrocities of this conflict is the high use of children as soldiers.
Reaction in South Sudan to Pope’s appeal
When asked how the people in the South Sudan have reacted to the Pope’s appeal for prayer for them, Sr Yudith says that, “I think they feel considered, not forgotten. When you go there, they ask you ‘please do not forget we are here. Speak up!’ And I think they feel that other people care for them and that they are important.” She says that they are grateful for those who are organizing things in other parts of the world because they cannot organize anything within their own country.
Prayer being organized all over the world
Things are being organized all over the world, says Sr Yudith. They have received many requests for material to use. Vespers, prayer and other campaigns are taking place in Rome, in Spain, in Germany, in the United States. Resources have been prepared by Solidarity with South Sudan and can be found on their web site.
The Pope wants everyone to think about what is happening
But above all, Sr Yudith believes that it is the Pope’s “intention to let everybody think about this and pray and fast with this in mind.” This coincides with the question that Pope Francis wants us to ask ourselves in our own “conscience, before God: ‘What can I do for peace?’ ” Prayer is something we can all certainly do, the Pope says, but concretely, everyone can “say ‘no’ to violence as far as it depends on him or on her. Because victories obtained through violence are false victories: while working for peace is good for everyone!”