.- On the day the Republic of South Sudan becomes the world’s newest country, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., recalled Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the troubled nation nearly 18 years ago.
“It was February 10, 1993, and John Paul II was at the end of an intense and extraordinary day in Khartoum,” Fr. Lombardi said in his weekly editorial as General Manager of Vatican Radio July 9.
“With his usual and extraordinary courage, he addressed the dramatic themes of justice and freedom in the presence of the governing authorities and was greeted with incredible enthusiasm by an immense crowd of Sudanese Catholics, for the most part displaced people from the south, fleeing from the violence of a civil war without end.”
The civil war that gripped Sudan was fought over two decades between a Muslim Arab-dominated north and a mainly Christian and animist south. It was a conflict that cost over two million lives, mainly civilians. Fr. Lombardi’s editorial quoted the words Pope John Paul II spoke that night in Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum in 1993.
“The immense suffering of millions of innocent victims impels me to voice my solidarity with the weak and defenseless,” said Pope John Paul, “who cry out to God for help, for justice, for respect for their God–given dignity as human beings, for their basic human rights, for the freedom to believe and practice their faith without fear or discrimination. I earnestly hope that my voice will reach you, Brothers and Sisters of the South.”
South Sudan’s independence is the end result of a 2005 peace agreement that began a partitioning of Sudan into two states. The split was finally ratified earlier this year in a referendum that saw over 98 percent of southern Sudanese vote for secession.
Attendees at today’s independence celebrations in South Sudan’s capital of Juba include dignitaries from around the globe, including a papal delegation sent by Pope Benedict XVI. The head of that delegation is Cardinal John Njue of Nairobi, Kenya.
Fr. Lombardi sees today’s events as a fulfillment of a hope expressed by Pope John Paul II in February 1993 when he prayed that “the Sudanese, with the freedom to choose, will succeed in finding a constitutional formula which will make it possible to overcome contradictions and struggles, with proper respect paid to the specific characteristics of each community.”
Fr. Lombardi concludes his editorial by expressing hope that the people of South Sudan can “build a future of freedom and peace” despite being “one of the poorest countries in the world” which faces “very difficult problems for its internal unity.”
“The mysterious and extraordinary vitality of the people of Sudan – which exploded that night in Khartoum before John Paul II – has not yet been exhausted, but in order to flourish, it is in need of concrete and strong international and ecclesial solidarity. We cannot let them down.”