For five years they were at war with each other in a bloody conflict that has killed 400,000, left six million starving, four million displaced from their homes and a devastated economy.
On 11 April 2019, the President of South Sudan, SalvaKiir, and his former vice-president Riek Machar sat together on a sofa in the Casa Santa Marta in the Vatican as Pope Francis appealed for them to persevere with their fragile peace agreement and “remain in peace.” After finishing his talk the Pope stood up from behind his desk, walked over to the warring leaders of the world’s youngest state and knelt down and kissed both of their feet. Machar, who was taken aback by the gesture, appeared to try to stop the Pope from bending down in front of him. Francis told him: “let me.”
Along with Kiir and Machar, the 82-year-old Pope also bent down to kiss the feet of the other political leaders gathered in the room including Rebecca Nyandeng, the widow of John Garang, the man who helped bring about an independent South Sudan. Nyandeng was in tears during the encounter, which is likely to go down as one of the most dramatic peace gestures of the Francis pontificate.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, choking up with emotion after witnessing the scene said: “We have heard the prophetic call of Christ. We now commission you as ambassadors of peace.” He handed each of the leaders a Bible with the following message: “seek that which unites. Overcome that which divides.”
By any worldly measure, South Sudan’s problems seem insurmountable and might be best left to the intercession of St Jude, the patron of saint of hopeless causes.