The bishops of South Sudan have said Pope Francis is hoping to visit the famine and conflict stricken country later this year, a move aimed at highlighting the intense suffering taking place there.
In a pastoral message to the country on 23 February, where 100,000 people are currently facing starvation, the catholic bishops and diocesan leaders in South Sudan have called for an end to the protracted civil war devastating their nation.
“With great joy we wish to inform you that the Holy Father Pope Francis hopes to visit South Sudan later this year,” they write. “You are already in his prayers, but his coming here would be a concrete symbol of his fatherly concern and his solidarity with your suffering. It would draw the attention of the world to the situation here.”
On 22 February, the Pope called for urgent humanitarian aid for the starving people and has taken a close interest in the crisis gripping the country.
Last October Francis met with Church leaders from South Sudan who urged him to make a joint peace mission with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to the war-torn country. The meeting took place in the Vatican after Francis called the South Sudanese bishops to Rome for an update on the situation in their homeland.
The famine is the first to be declared since 2011 in Somalia, where more than a quarter of a million people are estimated to have died between October 2010 and April 2012.
The churches are playing a vital role in offering emergency help to people, while also attempting to mediate a peace to bring an end to the conflict that started in 2013.
Only becoming a state in 2011, the country has been riven with inter-ethnic fighting as government forces led by President Salva Kiir clashed with rebels loyal to Riek Machar, who Kiir dismissed as his deputy in 2013.
Bishops in South Sudan believe a visit by the Pope would bring a moment of peace, in the way Francis’ trip to the war-torn Central African Republic helped ease tensions ahead of the country’s elections.
But a papal visit normally requires a formal invitation from the country’s head of state and it is unclear where President Salva Kiir is ready to issue one. He and Francis met in Uganda at the end of last year.
In their statement, witnessed by the papal ambassador to Kenya and South Sudan, the bishops say they are concerned that “some elements” in the Government are “suspicious” of the Church, adding that churches have been burned down and priests and religious people harassed. The bishops add that they are still “waiting for justice” in the case of the Slovakian missionary, Sister Veronica, who was gunned down by anti-government forces in the South Sudanese city of Yei last May while driving an ambulance.
“The ecumenical church leaders’ delegation which visited Pope Francis in Rome and Archbishop Justin Welby in London has been trying to obtain a meeting with President Salva Kiir since December 2016, but has so far been unsuccessful,” reads the bishops' statement.
It goes on: “we wish to inform all of you that the Church is not for or against anyone, neither the Government nor the opposition.”
Instead they are calling for an end to the killing, rape, torture, beatings and destruction that are taking place while calling for an end to the war and for an end to the “humanitarian crisis.”