As cardinal visits South Sudan, nation’s youth work for peace

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Pope South Sudan
Pope Francis greets the crowd Feb. 5, 2023, as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the John Garang Mausoleum in Juba, South Sudan. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

JUBA, South Sudan (OSV News) — Cardinal Michael Czerny is visiting South Sudan Feb. 2-9 to commemorate the first anniversary of Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to the country.

The prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development will travel to Juba, Malakal and Renk during his visit. While the pontiff’s 2023 apostolic trip was an “ecumenical pilgrimage of peace,” the country still struggles and is suffering the consequences of conflict, instability and displacement.

Prior to the cardinal’s arrival, dozens of religious leaders and young Catholics in the northeastern African country were touring troubled villages, towns and streets to preach messages of peace and urge residents to embrace forgiveness and reconciliation.

The country of more than 10 million people descended into a bloody civil war in 2013, only two years after it became Africa’s youngest country following its peaceful secession from Sudan in 2011.

But a power struggle in an oil-rich land soon developed into an ethnic conflict resulting in the death of almost 400,000 people and displacing millions — both internally and into neighboring countries, including Uganda and Kenya.

Security has improved in Sudan since 2018

Church leaders said that the overall security has improved in the country since the 2018 Peace Agreement, but the lack of political goodwill to implement the peace deal fully has triggered fighting between communities and road ambushes that have left more people dead and displaced. Today in South Sudan, 9.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance — 76% of the country’s population, U.N. agency for humanitarian assistance reported.

Pope Francis meets a young man during a meeting with internally displaced people at Freedom Hall in Juba, South Sudan, Feb. 4, 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“South Sudanese continue to suffer because of this conflict,” said John Deng Chol, youth leader from the Diocese of Rumbek in central South Sudan. “People have lost their loved ones, their properties, their homes have been destroyed, and the majority are still living in camps, and they lack basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothing, medical aid, and even children are not going to school.”

Chol said that he and his fellow young Catholics have been walking for several miles to sensitize communities in the country on the need for peace and forgiveness and to get to know each other.

“We are telling our fellow youth to maintain peace and love each other for the sake of our beloved country,” Chol told OSV News. “We are making young people understand that for any country to develop, there must be peace, and we should create and build peace for our next generations.”

Peace initiatives are meant to unite

Bishop Christian Carlassare of Rumbek said the peace initiative is meant to unite people and for them to know and love each other. He said such an initiative would prevent revenge killings, cattle raiding and road ambushes that the country has witnessed for a very long time.

“We are working hard and praying to change the minds of youths because we don’t want to see them being used by those in power and marching on the streets with guns ready to kill each other,” Bishop Carlassare told OSV News.

“We are giving our youths wherever we go the message of hope that they can still change the destiny of their country if they maintain peace.”

The bishop recalled that earlier this month, he held a peace pilgrimage with hundreds of young people across the country in response to Pope Francis’ message last year to the people of South Sudan to be “seeds of hope” that will “soon bear fruit.”

Poep Francis’ visit for peace

During his three-day tour of South Sudan Feb. 3-5, 2023, Pope Francis appealed for peace and forgiveness, urging political leaders to end the civil war and encouraging the people of South Sudan to save the country from collapsing.

“The future of South Sudan cannot lie in refugee camps,” the pontiff stressed.

“True, right now you are ‘planted’ where you don’t want to be, but precisely from this situation of hardship and uncertainty, you can reach out to those around you and experience that you all are rooted in the one human family,” the pope told South Sudanese Feb. 4, 2023, in Juba.

Catechist Peter Garang Akot said the church trains local leaders, elders, and opinion leaders in conflict prevention, stopping rumors, and peace education. He said the church leaders were also calling on political leaders to prioritize urging citizens to maintain peace.

“The peace initiative involves all of us, and we want the message to reach out to everyone in the country to end the war that has destroyed the lives of our people,” said Akot, adding that the peace initiative will continue until the country finds peace.

Tonny Onyuolo

Tonny Onyuolo writes for OSV News from Kampala, Uganda.