By Philip Pullella and Waakhe Simon Wudu
JUBA (Reuters) – Pope Francis ended a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan on Sunday, urging people to immunize themselves against the “poison of hate” in a bid to achieve peace and the prosperity they escaped during years of bloody ethnic conflict.
Francis led an outdoor mass at the site of a mausoleum for South Sudanese liberation hero John Garang, who died in a helicopter crash in 2005 before the predominantly Christian country split from Muslim Sudan in 2011.
The 86-year-old pope weaved his homily into the themes that dominated his trip to the world’s youngest nation – reconciliation and mutual forgiveness for past wrongs. The crowd sang, drummed and cheered as Francis entered the dusty area.
He asked the crowd of around 70,000 people to avoid the “blind fury of violence”.
Two years after independence, South Sudan plunged into a civil war that claimed the lives of 400,000 people. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main adversaries, fighting has continued, killing large numbers of civilians and displacing them.
At the end of the service, in a farewell address just before returning to the airport, the Pope thanked the people of South Sudan for the affection shown to him.
“Dear brothers and sisters, I return to Rome with an even greater affection for you,” he told them. “Never lose hope. And don’t miss an opportunity to make peace. May hope and peace dwell among you. May hope and peace dwell in South Sudan!
The pope has a long-standing interest in South Sudan. In one of the most notable gestures of his papacy, he knelt down to kiss the feet of the country’s previously belligerent leaders during a meeting at the Vatican in 2019.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and Iain Greenshields, moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, accompanied the pope on his visit to South Sudan.
The “pilgrimage of peace” was the first time in Christian history that leaders from the Catholic, Anglican and Reformed traditions made a joint visit abroad.
HOPE FOR A TURNING POINT
Earlier in his trip to Africa, the Pope visited the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the largest Roman Catholic community on the continent, where he celebrated Mass for a million people and heard harrowing stories from people wounded by the war in the east of the country.
Among those who attended Sunday mass in Juba, the South Sudanese capital, was Ferida Modon, 72, who lost three of her children in the conflict.
“I want peace to come to South Sudan. Yes, I believe his visit will be a game-changer. We are tired of conflict now,” she said. “We want God to hear our prayers.”
Jesilen Gaba, 42, a widow with four children, said: “The fact that the three churches have united for South Sudan is a turning point for peace. I want the visit to be a blessing for us. It was us during the war, we lost a lot of people.
Francis again called for an end to the tribalism, financial misconduct and political cronyism that underlie many of the country’s problems.
He urged people to “build good human relations to fight against the corruption of evil, the disease of division, the filth of fraudulent transactions and the scourge of injustice.”
South Sudan has some of the largest crude oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa, but a 2021 UN report says the country’s rulers have siphoned ‘staggering amounts of cash and other wealth’ from coffers and public resources.
The government dismissed the report and dismissed allegations of widespread corruption.
(Writing by Philip Pullella and Estelle Shirbon, editing by Frances Kerry)
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