Pope Francis wound up a peace mission to South Sudan on Sunday urging the people to make themselves immune to the “venom of hatred” to achieve the peace and prosperity that have eluded them through years of bloody ethnic conflicts.
Francis presided at a Mass on the grounds of a mausoleum for South Sudan’s liberation hero John Garang, who died in a helicopter crash in 2005 before the predominantly Christian country gained independence from Muslim Sudan in 2011.
The 86-year-old pope wove his homily around the themes that have dominated his trip to the world’s newest nation – reconciliation and mutual forgiveness for past wrongs. The crowd sang, drummed and ululated as Francis entered the dusty area.
He begged the crowd of about 70,000 people to shun the “blind fury of violence”.
“Today I would like to thank you, because you are the salt of the earth in this country. Yet, when you consider its many wounds, the violence that increases the venom of hatred, and the injustice that causes misery and poverty, you may feel small and powerless,” he said, speaking from a large altar platform overlooking the crowd in the capital, Juba.
Two years after independence, South Sudan plunged into a civil war that killed 400,000 people. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, bouts of fighting have continued to kill and displace large numbers of civilians.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the global Anglican Communion, and Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, attended the Mass.
The three religious leaders are on an unprecedented joint “pilgrimage of peace” to a nation that has so far been unable to quell deadly inter-ethnic conflict.
“This country, so beautiful yet ravaged by violence, needs the light that each one of you has, or better, the light that each one of you is,” said Francis, who was due to return to Rome later on Sunday together with Welby and Greenshields.
His trip to Africa also included a visit to Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ferida Modon, 72, who lost three of her children to conflict, sat at the back of the field to attend the Mass in Juba.
“I want peace to come to South Sudan. Yes, I believe that his visit will change the situation. We are now tired of conflict,” she said. “We want God to listen to our prayers.”
Jesilen Gaba, 42, a widow with four children, said: “The fact that the three Churches united for the sake of South Sudan, this is the turning point for peace. I want the visit to be a blessing to us. We have been at war, we have lost many people.”
Francis made another appeal for an end to the tribalism, financial wrongdoing and political cronyism at the root of many of the country’s problems.
He urged the people to build “good human relationships as a way of curbing the corruption of evil, the disease of division, the filth of fraudulent business dealings and the plague of injustice”.
South Sudan has some of the largest crude oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa but a U.N. report in 2021 said the country’s leaders had diverted “staggering amounts of money and other wealth” from public coffers and resources.
The government dismissed the report and has denied accusations of widespread corruption.