VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis’ No. 2 official at the Vatican, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, visited the African nation of South Sudan on Monday (Aug. 14) to promote the pontiff’s peace efforts in a country that has been embroiled in a bloody civil war.
Parolin landed in the capital of Juba, where he met with President Salva Kiir and his foreign minister, Deng Dau Deng, to bring “a message of goodwill from Pope Francis.” The cardinal also met with the opposition leader, Vice President Riek Machar, and the archbishop emeritus of Khartoum, Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako.
Parolin, who is the Vatican secretary of state, “invited the people of South Sudan to embrace the spirit of peace and reconciliation in order to build a harmonious society in the country.”
His efforts have been aided by the Community of St. Egidio, a Catholic lay-led movement based in Rome that has become a fundamental ally of Pope Francis in international diplomacy issues, from helping immigrants travel via legal and humanitarian corridors to negotiating peace talks.
On Tuesday, Parolin visited Malakal, a town in the Upper Nile that has been at the center of the war and has been alternatively under the control of one faction or the other in the conflict. The city has also suffered natural disasters, including flooding. In his homily at the Cathedral of St. Joseph, Parolin reassured locals, many of them displaced by the war, of the pope’s concern for them and warned against “the plague of revenge that is destroying their communities.”
In Malakal, Parolin met with church members and Upper Nile traditional chiefs. He also met with representatives of the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.
On Thursday, he will visit the Diocese of Rumbek, led by the missionary Bishop Christian Carlassare, where Parolin is expected to celebrate a Mass for Peace and Reconciliation.
South Sudan is the youngest country in the world, since it gained its independence from Sudan in July 2011. In 2013, Kiir accused his deputy Machar of conspiring in an attempted coup d’état to depose him from power. Machar denied the accusations and created the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition, or SPLM-IO, launching a bloody civil war that continues to this day.
In 2020, the rival forces agreed to form a coalition government, thanks to a peace treaty known as the “Revitalised transitional government of national unity.”
The civil war also has ethnic undertones since Kiir is of the Dinka tribe and Machar from the Nuer tribe. The conflict is worsened by a civil war in neighboring Sudan, which has led to thousands of immigrants seeking refuge in the young nation.
While the total number of dead remains unclear, some estimate that nearly half a million people have died in the country due to the war and the famine and devastation that followed. According to the United Nations, over 4 million people, most of them women and children, have been displaced in the country.
According to local Catholic authorities, around 8% of South Sudanese are Muslim and roughly half are Catholic, leading to the church’s keen interest in promoting a cease-fire between the warring factions. Pope Francis invited Kiir and Machar to a retreat at the Vatican in October and November of 2019, where he knelt and kissed their feet and asked them to keep to the peace treaty.
Despite the efforts, the war continues and local bishops have warned that the conditions for peace are still lacking. After several failed attempts due to his worsening health, Pope Francis visited the country in February 2023, when he held a private audience with the leaders of the two warring factions and begged them to come together in peace and put an end to the violence. Kiir promised the pope he would renew the peace negotiations.
The first-ever elections to take place in the country, long postponed due to conflict, are planned for 2024.
During his visit to South Sudan, Parolin participated in several tree planting ceremonies, which he said symbolize the need to invest in the future, especially young people in the country, and to focus on their development and the care of creation.
Young people are the “future of this country, the future of humanity, the future of the world and they should feel very committed to preserving this common home,” the cardinal said in an interview with local media.
Parolin is scheduled to take part in a tree planting ceremony at the St. Theresa cathedral in the Archdiocese of Juba before returning to Vatican City on Thursday.