Pope Francis on Saturday met South Sudanese children displaced by conflict and heard of the hardships of their lives in camps, telling them they would build a better future for the world’s newest country by replacing ethnic hatred with forgiveness.
The pope was visiting South Sudan with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Church of Scotland Moderator Iain Greenshields – an unprecedented joint “pilgrimage of peace”.
South Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011 but plunged into civil war in 2013 with ethnic groups turning on each other. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, bouts of inter-ethnic fighting have continued to kill and displace large numbers of civilians.
At a meeting in the capital Juba, the three Christian leaders listened to testimonies from displaced children including Johnson Juma Alex, 14, who has been living in a camp since 2014 after fleeing his hometown because of fighting.
“Life in the camp is not good because the area is small and crowded,” he told them, reading haltingly from a prepared text in English, which is not his native language.
“There is not enough space to play football. Many children do not go to school because there are not enough teachers and schools for all of us,” he said. After he spoke, the pope, the archbishop and the moderator warmly shook his hand.
There are 2.2 million internally displaced people in South Sudan, out of a total population of about 11.6 million, and another 2.3 million have fled the country as refugees, according to the United Nations.
Extreme poverty and hunger are rife across the country, with two thirds of the population needing humanitarian assistance as a result of conflict as well as three years of catastrophic floods.
“The future cannot lie in refugee camps,” the pope told the children after hearing their stories at the event, which was held in a prefabricated structure holding about 2,500 people.
“As you said, Johnson, there is a need for all children like yourself to have the opportunity to go to school – and to have a field to play football!”
Francis said hope for South Sudan’s future rests in children from different ethnic groups, who have suffered and are still suffering, yet who do not want to respond to evil with more evil.
“Although conflict, violence and hatred have replaced good memories on the first pages of the life of this republic, you must be the ones to rewrite its history as a history of peace!” he said.
“You bear the burden of a painful past, yet you never stop dreaming of a better future. In our meeting today, we would like to give wings to your hope.”
The resident U.N. humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, Sara Beysolow Nyanti, raised the issue of pervasive sexual violence against women and girls, who she said risked being violated while carrying out their daily routines.
The pope responded by calling on everyone in South Sudan to respect women.
“Please, protect, respect, appreciate and honour every woman, every girl, young woman, mother and grandmother. Otherwise, there will be no future,” he said, to cheers and ululations from the audience.
Archbishop Welby, leader of the global Anglican Communion, earlier spoke about South Sudan’s many problems at a service at Juba’s Anglican cathedral, where the congregation of thousands spilled out into the streets.
“My heart breaks. I can hardly speak with sorrow for South Sudan,” he said.
“I beg that at every level, from the president to the smallest child … that there is peace and good government, that no one steals money, that no one kills their neighbour for cattle.”
Later on Saturday, the three Christian leaders will take part in an open-air ecumenical prayer vigil at a mausoleum for South Sudan’s liberation hero John Garang, with 50,000 people expected to attend.