By Mark Michael

Archbishop Justin Welby and Pope Francis will travel together to South Sudan early in 2020 if the nation’s leaders continue to make progress in developing a unity government. The pastoral visit, which would be the first of its kind, grows out of several years of intimate involvement in the nation’s peace process by the two leaders.

The Vatican Press Office and Lambeth Palace jointly announced the potential visit following a meeting on November 13 between the two leaders at Casa Santae Martae, the current papal residence in Rome. Archbishop Welby was visiting Rome to participate in the installation of Archbishop Ian Ernest as the director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, a major forum for ecumenical dialogue.

In a Facebook post, Archbishop Welby said of the joint meeting, “We discussed our shared passion for peace in South Sudan and agreed that if the political situation permits the creation of a transitional government of national unity, it is our intention to visit together. Our commitment to the teaching of Jesus means we long to see a lasting solution to the conflict in South Sudan. We renew our call for spiritual and political leaders there to strive for peace.”

The Vatican press bulletin specifically noted that the visit would be held “if the political situation in the county should allow the establishment of a transitional government of national unity in the next 100 days, at the expiry of the agreement signed in recent days in Entebbe, in Uganda.”

South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir met with opposition leader Riek Machar at Entebbe on November 9, and they jointly agreed to form a transitional government by February 20. Their agreement was confirmed the next day by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) a trade group which is playing a coordinating role in the peace process. President Kiir has pledged $100 million towards establishing governmental structures for the nation, but major differences about security assurances and state boundaries remain between the two parties.

Christian leaders have played a major role in the peace process in Sudan, a country that is 60% Christian, mostly Roman Catholic and Anglican. A joint statement by ecumenical church leaders in July, 2018 lamented the lack of progress in reconciliation, stating: “We as the shepherds of the people of South Sudan continue to mourn and grieve for our country. Our hearts pain for the suffering, tired, hungry flock and for our leaders with all their fears, anger and trauma as they struggle both across our nation, the region and the world.” The statement, issued from Nairobi, played a major role in bringing opposing leaders to the negotiating table. The Anglican Archbishop, Justin Badi Arama, later helped to renew stalled peace talks convened by the IAGD.

Last April, Welby led a spiritual retreat at the Vatican for church and civil leaders of South Sudan, including Kiir and Machir. Described by the Vatican as “a propitious occasion . . . for encounter and reconciliation, in a spirit of respect and trust,” the pope spoke at the conclusion of the gathering, He described the retreat as an opportunity “to recognize our enormous shared responsibility for the present and future of the people of South Sudan and commit ourselves to be reinvigorated and reconciled to the building up of your nation.” Pope Francis closed, dramatically, by kissing the feet of the assembled leaders. Welby then presented each of the political leaders with a Bible, saying, “We have heard the prophetic call of Christ. We now commission you as ambassadors of peace.”

Sudan’s six-year civil war, which broke out just two years after national independence was declared, has devastated the country. An estimated 200,000 people have been killed, and millions have been displaced. The UN has described rape as “endemic” in the country, and the World Food Program warned in June, during the peak of the hunger season, that more than 60% of citizens were suffering from a widespread food shortage.

Bishop Moses Deng Bol of the Anglican Diocese of Wau was cautiously optimistic about how the promise of a joint pastoral visit might help opposing sides settle their differences. In an interview with The Church Times, he said, “I can describe the situation in South Sudan as desperate. People are desperately yearning for peace, but the leaders seem not to care for the welfare of the people, but for their own political and economic interests.” Deng Bol said that the existing peace agreement was a “great opportunity for the leaders to usher the country out of conflict to the path of peace and development. … But there is currently no political will to do so. The hope is that the visit of the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury may resuscitate or promote political will from our political leaders to implement the agreement in letter and spirit.”