KINSHASA, Congo (AP) - Pope Francis opened the second and final leg of his African pilgrimage by heading to South Sudan on Friday, hoping to encourage the young country's stalled peace process and draw international attention to continued fighting and a worsening humanitarian crisis.
Francis had one final appointment Friday in Kinshasa with Congo's bishops before flying to the South Sudanese capital, Juba. There, he joins the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields, in a novel ecumenical push for peace.
Together, the three represent the religious leadership of the overwhelmingly Christian country, the world's youngest, which gained independence from the majority Muslim Sudan in 2011 but has been beset by civil war and conflict. The Christian leaders are aiming to give a joint call for South Sudan's political leaders to put aside their differences and work for the good of their people.
Continued fighting, including attacks this week in the south that killed 27 people, has displaced some 2 million people and hampered implementation of a 2018 peace deal, but residents said the arrival of Francis on the first-ever papal visit to South Sudan gave them hope.
"The pope will bring us peace," said Monica Lado, a 40-year-old from Juba, on the eve of the three leaders' arrival.
One group of about 80 Catholics from the central city of Rumbek walked for nine days, covering an estimated 300 kilometers (around 190 miles), and arrived in Juba to cheers on Thursday. The pilgrims were sore, tired and had blisters, but said they hoped to attend Francis' big Mass on Sunday and take back blessings to their homes and families.
"As the pope is coming, I believe what was killing us will stop," said a smiling Victoria Yar, 58, as she sat in a plastic chair to rest after the long journey.
Another pilgrim on the trek, Mary Yom, a mother of eight, lost two children to violence. "Our country is being destroyed by the conflict and we hope that the pope is coming with peace, and no one will be killed again," she said.
Francis and Welby first announced plans to visit South Sudan in 2017, but security concerns repeatedly thwarted the trip. In an effort to move the process forward, Francis presided in 2019 over a joint prayer in the Vatican and famously got down on hands and knees and kissed the feet of South Sudan's rival leaders, begging them to make peace.
But fighting continues, evidence of the violence that simmers in communities at times awash with arms and ethnic tensions in one of the world's poorest countries. At least 27 people were killed this week in Central Equatoria state's Kajo-keji, in the latest communal violence between cattle herders and other residents. Kajo-keji county commissioner Phanuel Dumo called the attack "barbaric" and urged calm.
Overall, the International Committee of the Red Cross this week reported an influx of wounded patients in recent months due to renewed clashes across the country. "We see terrible injuries, and often airlifting patients from remote areas is the only way to save their lives," said ICRC Juba delegation head Pierre Dorbes.
In comments on local Eye Radio on Thursday, President Salva Kiir vowed the country would never go back to war as long as he was in power.
"The coming of the Holy Father to South Sudan is your prayers that have brought him," he said.
But part of the stall in implementing the peace accord is continued political friction between Kiir and deputy Riek Machar, who led opposition forces during the country's civil war and has long been interested in holding power himself. Lack of political will has been cited by critics for the slow implementation of the deal in a country also hampered by alleged widespread official corruption.
In Juba, Francis is widely expected to repeat his call for both men and all parties in South Sudan to commit to making progress on the accord and to put an end to corrupt practices. Already, delays forced the postponement of the country's first presidential election for another two years.
In addition, Francis is expected to call for an end to continued clashes and the dreadful plight of women in South Sudan.
The U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan last year reported that "widespread rape" was being used as a weapon by all armed groups across the country. It expressed shock at interviewees describing "staggeringly brutal and prolonged gang rapes perpetrated against them by multiple men, often while their husbands, parents or children were forced to watch, helpless to intervene."
Additionally, the United Nations warned in November that some 9.4 million people out of a population of 12.4 million would need humanitarian aid and protection this year, a half million more than in 2022. It cited continued violence, constraints on access by aid groups and climate conditions including flooding and drought as driving up the need.
At the same time, the U.N. has warned that the necessary funding for an increased aid response has dwindled, as donors redirect aid budgets to Ukraine and other crises.
Poni Mary, 45, who fled the country in 2014 during the civil war but returned to Juba last year, said she hoped South Sudanese would use the pope's visit to forgive one another.
"If you still have sins, anger or problem in your heart with someone else, it will be difficult for you to receive blessings of God," she said.
Machol reported from Juba, South Sudan. Cara Anna and Evelyne Musambi in Nairobi contributed.
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