AFRICA/SOUTH SUDAN - Pope's visit: "Ecumenical journey" to pave the way for peace

Friday, 27 January 2023

Juba (Agenzia Fides) - As part of an ecumenical visit, Pope Francis will visit South Sudan together with the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Primate of the Anglican Communion, and Pastor Iain Greenshields, President of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In the African country, affiliation to different faith communities also represents a unifying factor in the fabric of society and social life in a context that has been devastated and shattered by decades of civil wars. This affiliation often also has a role in bridging ethnic differences that fuel conflict. For this reason, leaders of the various faith communities have advocated for peace negotiations over the years.
This is the terrain on which the "ecumenical journey" planned by Pope Francis, Archbishop Welby and Pastor Greenshields moves, which sees itself as a sign and an opportunity, the desire for peace and goodness that dwells in the hearts of many who have been paying the price for pointless conflicts for decades.

It is interesting to take into account the historical journey that today sees various Churches and ecclesial communities put aside old confessional rivalries to work side by side in an attempt to extinguish conflicts and support the construction of a peaceful civil coexistence oriented to the common good.

"The Christian proclamation," recalls Father Christopher Hartley, a Spanish missionary from the Diocese of Toledo, now in Nandi, Diocese of Tombura-Yambio, "had reached the present region of South Sudan in the sixth century. But genuine initiatives of evangelization throughout Sudan in modern times began in the 19th century, during the period of the British Empire, with the Comboni missionaries from Verona and the missionaries of the Mill Hill Society. In many regions now included in South Sudan, missionary activity and presence gained relevance and continuity from the 1970s.
Although there is still a component of syncretism with elements from traditional religions, the faith of much of the Christian population is admirable and moving".

About 6.2 million South Sudanese (representing 37.2% of the national population of over 16 million) are Catholics. "Saint Josephine Bakhita, the first African Comboni sister born around 1845 in the Nuba Mountains, in what is now South Sudan, and Saint Daniel Comboni are the two great martyrs venerated by the South Sudanese, also here in the diocese of Tombura Yambio. The work of the Comboni missionaries in South Sudan was not seriously affected even by their expulsion on March 6, 1964 and the war in 1983," adds Father Christopher. "The Catholic faith first came to Mupoi near Tombura in 1912 with the Comboni Missionaries. The parish of Nandi is the third in the diocese and was also founded by the Comboni Missionaries in 1947. However, in many regions of the country Christianity Christianity arrived only a few decades ago. There are places where missionaries are still proclaiming Jesus Christ for the first time. There is no shortage of priestly and religious vocations, there are many candidates for the priesthood in the seminaries of the country, even if the formation is sometimes very precarious." There is only one major seminary in the Archdiocese of the capital, Juba, and most dioceses have small seminaries. Most South Sudanese students therefore study theology in Juba, Nairobi or Kinshasa.

Education is therefore also the focus of the efforts and initiatives of the local Catholic Church. Most minors in South Sudan attend Catholic educational institutions. "In Tombura, for example, there are more Catholic than public schools," emphasizes the missionary.

The first Comboni missionaries arrived in Sudan in 1842. They built schools and hospitals to serve the local people, still bound by traditional religious beliefs and practices. "Thanks to the missionaries, most of the local people abandoned their traditional religion and became Catholic."

In 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the southern regions and the government in Khartoum paved the way for South Sudan's independence, which was signed in 2011. After the country's secession from Sudan, most Catholics living in Juba and the surrounding areas chose to remain in South Sudan.

Anglicans and Reformed Non-Catholic churches and ecclesiastical communities came to Sudan starting from 1899.
Anglicans, through the Church Missionary Society, already administered baptism to tens of thousands of inhabitants through preaching and missionary efforts in the early years of their presence in the region. Currently, the Episcopal Church of Sudan, which is part of the Anglican Communion, numerically represents the second largest Church in both Sudan and South Sudan, after the Catholic Church.

The United Presbyterian Church, which is part of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, began its work in Sudan in 1900. Missionaries from many other Reformed and Evangelical denominations, such as the Sudanese Church of Christ, then reached the country during the 20th century, missionaries from many other Reformed and evangelical church communities, such as the Sudanese Church of Christ (Sudanese Church of Christ), arrived in the country, concentrating their activities in the south.

Among other faith communities in South Sudan, Muslims are a minority. Many of them lived in the country before it gained independence from Sudan in 2011.

The traditional African religion based on animist beliefs that vary from tribe to tribe and community to community, continues to be followed by a large portion of the population.

Hunger, food insecurity and political instability
"Although there are data that seem to indicate a process of recovery and maturation in this young country," Father Christopher continued, "the overall situation remains alarming. More than half the population is at risk of hunger and lives in total food insecurity. About two million children suffer from malnutrition."

"The political, economic and social instability in South Sudan is mainly due to the long conflict between President Salva Kiir, who belongs to the largest Dinka ethnic group, and his deputy Riek Machar, who belongs to the Nuer ethnic group. The two enemies visited the Vatican in 2019 where Pope Francis kissed their feet and asked them for peace. Although only 4-5% of the population in South Sudan has electricity and access to water is almost non-existent, the country is very rich in natural resources, including gold, diamonds, and oil. Resources that are no longer available due to insecurity and political and social instability."

Even before the establishment of the independent state of South Sudan, the conflict in Darfur, a region in the west of the country, was a setback for Sudan as a whole. The conflict, which officially broke out in 2003 and was declared over in 2009, claimed at least 400,000 lives and around two million displaced people had to leave their homes. Despite a peace agreement signed in Ethiopia in 2018, strong ethnic tensions persist to this day.
Fighting between rival militias has resumed in South Sudan since August 2022. The elections in the country, which have been postponed several times, are now scheduled for the end of 2024.
Founded in 2011 between two gruesome civil wars, South Sudan gained independence after almost 30 years of war. The capital of the young state became Juba, where there are currently at least 50 ethnic groups. Women have an average of 5/6 children and life expectancy is under 60 years of age. (AP) (Agenzia Fides, 27/1/2023)