One year after papal visit, South Sudan still plagued by violence

FT-J_wBh Pan Ngath Orphanage (run by the Missionary Sisters of Charity) in Rumbek, South Sudan. | Credit: Sudan Relief Fund

More than a year after Pope Francis visited South Sudan and urged people to put a stop to the bloodshed and violence, the country is still plagued with high levels of violent crime and armed conflict between ethnic groups.

During the first week of February 2023, the Holy Father made a historic visit to South Sudan. While visiting the Christian-majority country, he called for unity among the nation’s Christians in efforts to promote peace at an ecumenical gathering with the Church of England’s Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Moderator Iain Greenshields.

“Those who choose Christ choose peace, always; those who unleash war and violence betray the Lord and deny his Gospel,” the pope said at the time. “What Jesus teaches us is clear: We are to love everyone, since everyone is loved as a child of our common Father in heaven. The love of Christians is not only for those close to us but for everyone, for in Jesus each person is our neighbor, our brother or sister — even our enemies.”

The pope’s call for peace has not quelled the violence in South Sudan, which has been unstable since the country gained independence from Sudan in 2011. South Sudan, which is the world’s youngest country, is home to more than 60 ethnic groups. The two largest are Dinka, which accounts for more than one-third of the country’s population, and Nuer, which is about half that size.

A considerable amount of the violence in South Sudan stems from conflicts between those two ethnic groups, which vie for political power in the country as well as access to resources like water and cattle. Tensions between the two groups sparked a six-year civil war in 2016. Although a peace deal was reached in February 2020 through the creation of a unity government, violence still flares up, particularly through cattle raids.

According to the International Rescue Committee, since August 2022 intercommunal clashes have been rising in Upper Nile State, which is in the northeastern part of the country. The violence near South Sudan’s border with its northern neighbor Sudan has also been increasing over the past year because of a spillover of violence from Sudan’s current civil war. 

A December 2023 United Nations report noted that economic issues — some of which have been caused by the civil war to the north — have also posed problems for peace. 

“Localized food insecurity, further exacerbated by the disruption of critical supply routes from the north, has had catastrophic consequences, while the resulting competition for resources has further frayed intercommunal tensions,” the report summary noted.

Just a little more than two weeks ago, on the northern border on Jan. 29, rival Dinka groups in Sudan and South Sudan engaged in an armed fight for oil-rich territory, which is claimed by both countries. 

The violence left 52 civilians dead and 64 greatly wounded, according to the U.N. Two U.N. peacekeepers were killed in the violence. 

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres condemned the attacks in a statement through a spokesperson.

“The Secretary-General condemns the violence and attacks against [the U.N. Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA)] and calls on the governments of South Sudan and Sudan to swiftly investigate the attacks, with the assistance of UNISFA, and bring the perpetrators to justice,” the statement read. 

“The Secretary-General reminds all parties that attacks on United Nations peacekeepers may constitute war crimes,” the statement added. 

The United Nations, the Vatican, and international human rights groups are closely watching the upcoming South Sudan election, which is scheduled to take place in December, and the potential violence that could ensue if the legitimacy of the results is brought into question.

During a recent visit to South Sudan on the first anniversary of last year’s papal visit, Cardinal Michael Czerny called for “a peaceful transfer of power” in the upcoming election and reminded the country’s citizens of the pontiff’s message of peace. 

“Dear brothers and sisters, this is a critical moment in the political life of your country,” Czerny said during a homily at St. Theresa’s Kator Cathedral of the Juba Archdiocese on Feb. 4. 

“As you prepare for the general elections, pray and work hard to ensure that it is nonviolent, fair, transparent, credible, and peaceful,” Czerny said.

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