Pope Francis kisses feet of South Sudan’s leaders in bid for peace

Pope Francis knelt to kiss the feet of South Sudan’s previously warring leaders urging them to respect the armistice they signed and to commit to forming a unified government next month.

“I am asking you as a brother to stay in peace. I am asking you with my heart, let us go forward. There will be many problems but they will not overcome us. Resolve your problems,” Francis said.

A video released by the Vatican shows an aide helping Francis, who is 82, to kneel so he could kiss the feet of President Salva Kiir Mayardit. He then moved on to Vice Presidents-designate Riek Machar and Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior.

Kiir and Machar were once rivals, with Kiir accusing Machar – his former deputy – of staging a 2013 coup.

Several years of civil war followed. However, last year they signed a peace agreement and they are now trying to form a stable government together.

The South Sudanese politicians were staying at the Pope’s Vatican residence for a two-day spiritual retreat, co-hosted by Francis and the head of the Anglican Church, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. The retreat was Welby’s idea.

The aim was to bring the South Sudanese leaders together for 24 hours of prayer and preaching in an attempt to heal bitter divisions before the country is due to set up a unity government.

“There will be struggles, disagreements among you but keep them within you, inside the office, so to speak,” Francis said in Italian as an aide translated into English. “But in front of the people, hold hands united. So, as simple citizens, you will become fathers of the nation.”

Sudan, which is predominantly Muslim, and the mainly Christian south fought for decades before South Sudan became independent in 2011.

Civil war broke out in South Sudan two years later after Mr Kiir, a Dinka, fired Mr Machar, from the Nuer ethnic group, from the vice presidency.

About 400,000 people died and more than a third of the country’s 12 million people were uprooted, sparking Africa’s worst refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The two sides signed a power-sharing deal in September calling on the main rival factions to assemble, screen and train their respective forces to create a national army before the formation of a unity government next month.

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