Pope Francis to host 'spiritual retreat' for leaders of war-torn South Sudan

Pope Francis meeting with President Salva Kiir Mayardit of the Republic of South Sudan on March 16 2019 Credit Vatican Media  CNA Pope Francis meeting with President Salva Kiir Mayardit of the Republic of South Sudan on March 16, 2019. | Vatican Media / CNA.

The Vatican will host a "spiritual retreat" for South Sudan's president and opposition leader as they navigate the peace process in the war torn country, a Vatican spokesman confirmed Wednesday.

Following a five-year civil war and a tenuous peace deal signed in September, the South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar will meet in Rome April 10.

"It will be a spiritual moment and above all an invitation to realize the responsibility that political leaders and authorities have," Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said April 3.

Parolin confirmed that Pope Francis will also be present and participate in the retreat.

Pope Francis previously discussed the implementation of the peace agreement and the return of refugees with the South Sudanese President Salva Kiir during a private audience on March 16.

The following week, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher,  traveled to South Sudan, where he and a Vatican delegation visited a refugee camp outside the South Sudanese capital.

The years-long civil war has left 2.1 million people displaced within South Sudan, and another 2.5 million refugees in neighboring countries, according to the United Nations.

Gallagher also met with the bishops of South Sudan, who have been outspoken in their serious concerns about the peace agreement signed September 12, calling the treaty "fatally flawed" because it does not address the root causes of the conflict.

"Parties are not creating conditions sustainable for peace which would thereby prevent the outbreak or relapse of violent conflict again," the bishops wrote in a statement released in March.

In his meeting with Kiir, Pope Francis once again expressed his wish to someday visit South Sudan as "a sign of closeness to the population and encouragement for the peace process," the Vatican said. A prior trip to the war torn country was cancelled in 2017 due to security concerns.

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in South Sudan's civil war, which began shortly after South Sudan became an independent country in 2011. The fighting primarily took place between those forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel groups led by Riek Machar, the former vice president.

Pope Francis called on Catholics to pray for South Sudan in his general audience last week. "It's good for us to stop for a while and think about hungry children," he said March 27.

"We think of the children who are in countries at war: the starving children of Yemen, the hungry children in Syria, the hungry children in many countries where there is no bread, in South Sudan. We think of these children and thinking of them we say together, aloud, the prayer: 'Father, give us this day our daily bread'," Pope Francis said.

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