By Linda Bordoni
It took the courage of Pope Francis to get down on his knees and kiss the feet of warring political leaders pleading with them to put their differences behind, and resolve their problems for the good of their people.
The rival leaders were South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riek Machar who were invited, last week, to take part in a Vatican-hosted spiritual retreat led by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Their enmity is at the root of South Sudan’s civil war - a conflict that has raged on for years, killing thousands of people, displacing millions and preventing the newest country in the world from sowing the seeds of a peaceful future.
Meanwhile, on the ground in South Sudan, an organization of religious congregations is working hard to train much needed teachers, nurses, midwives, local farmers and community leaders.
The organization is called “Solidarity with South Sudan” and its new Executive Director, Fr Jim Greene, spoke to Vatican News about the work being done, about the effects of Pope Francis’ powerful gesture and appeal for peace, and about how important it is for the people of the East Central African nation to know they have the support of the international community and of their neighbours.
Fr Greene speaks about the work, the history and the mission of “Solidarity with South Sudan” explaining its main office is in the capital Juba, but that it has many placements in different States. It is made up, he says, of mostly religious men and women who are committed to building much needed capacities for the young nation that gained independence in 2011.
He points out that the organization actually goes back further than that – to 2005 – when the “Comprehensive Peace Accord” was signed and the bishops of Sudan came to Rome and asked religious congregations to help accompany the nation on its journey forward.
He says it was decided that what could be done was to provide trainers, who in turn could train much needed teachers, nurses, midwives, farmers etc.
“That’s how it started. We celebrated our 10th anniversary last year of active presence in South Sudan. We were there for independence and that whole ‘euphoria’ of independence with the sense of a journey coming to an end; we were there in 2013 when this most terrible civil war broke out” he says.
And in fact, he continues, “we had a newly built teachers’ college in Malakal that we had to abandon because it was destroyed by gunfire. The suffering has affected us deeply”.
Fr Greene goes on to reveal that members of the organization have suffered a series of attacks – including a violent attack against the personnel in Yambio - but the decision was taken that “Solidarity” would stay in South Sudan and that it would continue to operate to the best of its ability to serve the Church and prepare nurses and teachers in the best possible way.
Fr Greene says he hasn’t personally witnessed episodes of violence since he has been in Juba for the past two months, but knows of the violence that takes place in other areas and of the impossibility for priests, for example, to go into volatile rural areas.
He also speaks of the suffering of so many displaced people who are still in camps, not only because of political instability and fear of violence, but also because of food insecurity and the need for assistance.
Revitalized Peace Accord
Regarding the “Revitalized Peace Accord” signed in September last year by South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, and by the Sudan People Liberation Movement in Opposition chairman, Riek Machar, and several other armed groups, Fr Greene says it generated “a great sense of hope” but also revealed the great fragility of the agreement.
According to the deal, the armed forces must be unified, and a transitional government should be formed by May 2019. However, at the midway point, the agreement's implementation is facing many challenges including: a general lack of funding needed to carry out reforms; little progress on the reintegration of armed groups; military offenses against non-signatory groups; reports of assaults on peace monitors; and localized violence including accounts of mass rapes in Bentiu. The peace deal is being implemented amid an ongoing economic crisis and widespread food insecurity. As a result, many displaced South Sudanese feel that it is unsafe to return home.
Fr Greene points out the pastoral letter written by the bishops of Sudan highlights a feeling of pessimism based on a lack of implementation of the accord.
“The people are very aware of the forces that can tear the peace asunder but there is that desire to ask people to make that final effort for peace” he says, reflecting on the fact that the peace accord was premised on a lot of other things happening before the return of Riek Machar to South Sudan on 12 May, and those things have not happened.
“Peace is not just a shaking of hands, but the building-up of confidence and of structures that are inclusive and mutually accepted” he says.
Fr Greene also says the international community and the countries around South Sudan play a vital role in convincing people that peace is important.
Peace is important, peace is achievable
Speaking of last week’s Spiritual Retreat in the Vatican, led by the Most Reverend Justin Welby and hosted by Pope Francis, Fr Greene says he was very struck by this “very unique gesture”.
“I am not a Church historian, but I cannot think of any other occasion where the Pope would have invited those people for an ecumenical retreat in the Vatican and ended up kissing their feet” he says.
All that, he adds, speaks of a very unique gesture, of trying to break beyond the normal rules of diplomacy and say “peace is important and peace is also achievable”.
He says that if the leaders too “are willing to step outside their comfort zones and to reach across to each other in mutual respect and esteem than peace is possible… Otherwise we will descend into violence”.
Praying for peace in South Sudan
Fr Greene concludes with an appeal to all men and women of goodwill “to continue to think of South Sudan, to read about it, to take an interest in it, to pray for peace there and to support initiatives for peace”.
It’s a young country, he points out, where 41% of the population is under the age of 15.
Yes, “it’s a country that needs an awful lot of help, but it’s a country where the people are full of optimism” and there are also people who have been deeply traumatized by the events of a past in marked by decades of violence.
“But, he insists, there is the desire to come out of that, and I would hope there is a willingness of the international community and the international Church to reach out and say: we are willing to support you on your faltering steps towards peace and development”.