In a dramatic gesture on Thursday, Pope Francis knelt to kiss the feet of warring South Sudan leaders, during their visit to the Vatican to resolve their disputes.
Pope urged them not return to a civil war again by appealing to President Salva Kiir, his former deputy turned rebel leader Riek Machar, and three other vice presidents to respect a peace agreement they signed and commit to forming a unity government in May.
“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 in improvised remarks.
The Vatican brought together South Sudanese leaders for 24 hours of prayer and preaching inside the pope’s residence in an attempt to heal bitter divisions before the country is due to set up a unity government.
The Pope’s words were made even more pressing as anxiety grew in South Sudan over whether Thursday’s coup in neighbouring Sudan could scupper a fragile peace deal that ended South Sudan’s brutal five-year civil war.
South Sudan, which is predominantly Muslim, and the mainly Christian south fought for decades before South Sudan became independent in 2011. South Sudan plunged into civil war two years later after Kiir, a Dinka, fired Machar, from the Nuer ethnic group, from the vice presidency.