Pope Francis stunned guests at a spiritual retreat in Vatican City when he fell to his knees to kiss the feet of three previously warring South Sudanese leaders. The Pope was helped in the unexpected gesture by an aide and by each leader as he urged them to ensure peace is maintained in the landlocked East African nation. Addressing the South Sudan envoy, Pope Francis said: “To the three of you who signed the Peace Agreement, I ask you, as a brother, remain in peace.
“I ask you from the heart. Let us move forward. There will be many problems, but don’t be afraid, go forward, resolve the problems.
“You have started a process, may it end well. Although struggles will arise these should stay “within the office.”
The decision to kneel to his guest was unexpected as the Pontiff, aged 82 and with only one lung, is known to avoid genuflecting even when administering sacraments.
The Pope appealed to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and vice-president designates Riek Machar and Rebecca Nuandeng De Mabio. Riek Machar, who served as deputy of President Kiir before becoming the leader of rebellious forces during the ongoing South Sudan Civil War, also received the heartfelt appeal from the Holy Father.
The warring factions agreed to a “permanent ceasefire” in June 2018 and appear headed to form a unity government after five years of conflict.
Nearly 400,000 people are believed to have died during the clashes between the forces loyal to President Kiir and the fighters led by Mr Machar.
The civil conflict began shortly after South Sudan broke off from Sudan to become the youngest nation in the world.
Speaking in South Sudan’s capital Juba last year, President Kiir apologised to citizens for the suffering they were subjected to during the war.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said the retreat was designed to facilitate “encounter and reconciliation, in a spirit of respect and trust,” and would bring together those leaders who have “the responsibility to work for a future of peace and prosperity for the South Sudanese people.
The meeting at the Holy See was the result of close cooperation between the Vatican Secretariat of State and the Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.
While South Sudanese leaders appeared on the path of reconciliation, protest in neighbouring Sudan resulted in the regime leader Omar al-Bashir being toppled after nearly 30 years in power.