On Friday Vatican spokesman Greg Burke confirmed that while Pope Francis had voiced his desire to travel to South Sudan for an ecumenical visit alongside Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby, it won’t be happening this year.
The trip is still being considered, just “not this year,” Burke told journalists May 30. He did not elaborate on when the visit, which had been tentatively planned for October, might take place.
Francis had hoped to travel to the war-torn country to promote peace, after making a similar effort during his 2015 visit to the Central African Republic.
Although Burke didn’t cite specific reasons for the postponement of the Pope’s visit to South Sudan, various Italian media outlets have reported that the decision was made due to security concerns.
The Pope previously voiced his intention to visit South Sudan alongside Anglican Primate and Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. The trip would have marked the first time Catholic and Anglican leaders made such a trip together.
The idea was likely the fruit of a meeting the Pope had with ecumenical leaders from South Sudan last fall, when Archbishop Paulino Luduku Loro of Juba traveled to Rome together with Rev. Daniel Deng Bul Yak, Archbishop of the Province of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan, and Rev. Peter Gai Lual Marrow, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan.
The three of them met with Pope Francis Oct. 27, 2016, to discuss the desperate situation of the country with Pope Francis. During the visit, they not only highlighted their joint collaboration in seeking to alleviate the effects of the crisis, but they also invited the Pope for a formal visit.
Arranged by Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Vatican’s dicastery for Integral Human Development, the meeting focused largely on current tensions dividing Sudanese people, and the collaboration of different Christian denominations in promoting reconciliation and the common good.
Sudan has been the scene of nearly continuous civil war since it gained independence in 1956. Many of the initial problems were caused by corruption in the government, which led to the political, economic, and religious marginalization of the country’s peripheries.
South Sudan became an independent country in 2011, but has been torn by a civil war since December 2013, between the state forces – the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – and opposition forces, as well as sectarian conflict.
A peace agreement was eventually signed, but was broken by violence in the summer of 2016, prompting the South Sudan Council of Churches to publicly condemn the violence and pray for peace. A ceasefire was then ordered by President Kiir and then-Vice President Machar in July.
Machar, the former rebel leader, ended up fleeing the country. However, despite this, violent fighting in the country has continued.
In comments to CNA after their meeting with the Pope in 2016, Archbishop Loro emphasized the joint ecumenical effort of Christian Churches in South Sudan, saying “all are Christian religions and we are perfectly together.”
Different Christian communities have always spoken about the situation of the country together, and because of this it was “perfectly in place” that the three of them would come to the Vatican together to voice concerns surrounding the state of their country.
“We are together and we are really speaking one voice and one language” to raise awareness of the humanitarian, political and social crisis of the country both locally and internationally, the archbishop said.
Should Francis ever go to South Sudan, Loro said the Pope would visit as “a religious leader” whose presence “would have a great impact and would be very welcome by us and by civil society, and it would be a great help for us.”
As far as international visits go, the only other confirmed trip on the Pope’s calendar is his Sept. 6-11 visit to Colombia. Pope Francis has also spoken about a possible trip to India and Bangladesh toward the end of 2017, however, it has not yet been confirmed.
by Elise Harris