Pope Francis called for peace on Saturday as he met a group of several hundred South Sudanese people internally displaced by war at an event in the country’s capital Juba.
“I want to renew my forceful and heartfelt appeal to end all conflict and to resume the peace process in a serious way,” the pope told the crowd gathered in the Freedom Hall.
“There is no room for delay,” Francis said to applause. His words echoed his message to the country’s leaders Friday evening when he criticized the “stagnant” peace process.
The pope’s visit to South Sudan came days after the 86-year-old held Mass for 1 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), another country grappling with poverty and strife. Francis’ trip to the DRC – the first papal visit since 1985 – came as the African nation is beset by armed fighting and a worsening refugee crisis.
South Sudan has been in a civil war since 2013, and a 2018 peace agreement has yet to be fully implemented. The war has led to more than 4 million South Sudanese people – 65% of them aged under 18 – either fleeing the country or being internally displaced, according to the UNHCR.
“The future cannot lie in refugee camps,” the pontiff said Saturday.
“There is no room for further delay,” he said, adding that “great numbers of children born in recent years have only known the reality of camps for displaced persons.”
In photos: Pope Francis visits DRC and South Sudan
Rebecca Nyakour, a young girl who lives in a refugee camp in Juba, addressed the pope, asking him to give a special blessing to internally displaced and refugee children.
“We know you are a great leader because despite your bad knee, you have come to be with us,” she said.
“Pope Francis, we love you; we will never forget this day. Thank you for loving South Sudan,” she said to great applause.
Francis gave a special blessing to the children of South Sudan, together with Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby and Moderator of General Assembly of Church of Scotland Iain Greenshields, who are with the pope on this trip. The three churches represent the majority Christian denominations to which most South Sudanese belong.
On Saturday evening all three Christian leaders are scheduled to participate in a joint prayer ceremony at the John Garang Mausoleum in Juba. The pope will hold an outdoor mass in Juba on Sunday morning before returning to Rome in the afternoon.
“South Sudan, wrecked by years of war, longs for an end to the constant violence that forces many people to be displaced and live in conditions of great hardship,” the pope said before leaving Rome for Africa on Tuesday.
South Sudan gained independence from Muslim-majority Sudan in 2011 after decades of conflict only to plunge into civil war two years later when fighting erupted between those loyal to President Salva Kir and those allied with Vice-President Riek Machar, who is from a different ethnic group.
In April 2019, the pope held a spiritual retreat at the Vatican for political and religious leaders in South Sudan, and in an unprecedented gesture he knelt down and kissed the feet of President Kir and Vice-President Machar.