It’s exceedingly rare for the pope to kiss feet. He just did it for South Sudan’s warring leaders.
VATICAN – Pope Francis has asked the two South Sudanese warring leaders President Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riek Machar to put their differences behind them this week when the Vatican took the unusual step of hosting the two men
On Thursday, April 11, the pontiff appealed to Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar to move forward, bending down to kiss their feet as he asked them to “stay in peace.”
“There will be many problems, but they will not overcome us. Resolve your problems,” Reuters reported him as saying.
Pope Francis also urged them to keep disagreements “within you, inside the office, so to speak.”
“But in front of the people, hold hands united,” he said. “So, as simple citizens, you will become fathers of the nation.”
The encounter made for a striking scene: one of the world’s most powerful religious leaders bent over the feet of two men responsible for a conflict that may have left 383,000 people dead.
The war in South Sudan broke out in December 2013 after tensions between President Kiir and Dr. Machar escalated.
Soon, troops loyal to each man opened fire on each other in the capital of Juba. It quickly morphed into an ethnically fueled conflict and spread across the country, which just two years before had won independence from its northern neighbor Sudan who is also in deeper trouble.
After years fighting for freedom from Khartoum, South Sudanese had little time to relish peace before the most recent conflict began. Since late 2013, millions have been displaced from their homes, some have been subjected to man-made famine, and many are still going hungry.
More than a million fled over the border into Uganda, sparking one of the biggest refugee crises in the world and carrying with them stories of mass rape, disease and starvation.
Observers doubted that a brief summit at the Vatican could help the two leaders implement the latest version of a peace agreement they’ve bickered over for years.
The Vatican summit is “sort of one of those moments where it leaves me without words,” said Payton Knopf, a former member of the United Nations’ panel of experts on South Sudan. “It would literally take a miracle from God for Riek and Salva to ever be part of the solution here.”