Historic 'Ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace' to South Sudan

The Moderator of the General Assembly, Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury are embarking on an historic "Ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace" to South Sudan.

The church leaders have been invited by President Salva Kiir Mayardit and will meet with him and his five vice-presidents in Juba, the capital of the world's youngest country which has been blighted by civil war.

Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields, Pope Francis and Most Rev Justin Welby will also meet local church leaders, people living in a displaced persons camp and lead a large open-air prayer vigil for peace.

 Iain Greenshields Justin Welby
Peacemakers - Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields and Most Rev Justin Welby.

The purpose of the visit from 5-7 July is to renew a commitment to peace and reconciliation and stand in solidarity with millions of ordinary people who are suffering profoundly from continued armed conflict, violence, floods and famine.

Around 400,000 people are said to have lost their lives.

The church leaders – representing the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, global Anglican communion and Presbyterianism — pray that communities torn apart by violence can co-exist and develop in a peaceful, just and secure environment.

"All with war is lost"

The pilgrimage was promised during a spiritual retreat at the Vatican in 2019 which brought together Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Very Rev Dr John Chalmers, former Moderator of the General Assembly, with President Salva Kiir Mayardit, Riek Machar, who is now First Vice-President, and other politicians.

In a dramatic gesture at the end of the visit, the Pontiff knelt before the government leaders and opposition, kissing their shoes and urging them to pursue peace.

"Remember that with war, all is lost," he said.

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 and there was great hope for the country but civil war broke out between the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups two years later.

Peace talks the following year led to an agreement being signed in 2015 but it was short-lived and fighting began again in Juba the following year.

After 20-months of violent conflict, the warring parties signed a peace agreement in 2018, giving cautious hope that the country would be on the road to peace.

However, South Sudan is still fragile today with an economy on the brink of collapse, a deteriorating humanitarian situation due to hunger and an unsteady political will to implement the peace agreement.

Conflict resolution

Dr Greenshields said: "I am genuinely humbled at the opportunity to assist our brothers and sisters in South Sudan in the search for peace, reconciliation and justice.

"It is a privilege to be joining the Holy Father and the Archbishop of Canterbury on this historic Ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace and we come as servants of the Global Church.

"We call on all people in South Sudan to give expression to Jesus' words that ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God.'

"The Church of Scotland has been invited to represent the Presbyterian family due to our strong partnership with the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan.

"We have been working closely together since 2015 on a vital peace, reconciliation and conflict resolution programme.

"It has helped local church leaders work at both a grassroots level and political level to try and bring unnecessary conflict to an end and build lasting peace, stability and unity.

"There is still much work to do and the symbolism of this historic ecumenical visit sends out a very strong message about our steadfast commitment to helping the people of this country flourish for the good of all."

Presbyterian churches around the world can trace their roots back to the Church of Scotland which was founded in 1560.

The Kirk is a member of the Ecumenical Network for South Sudan (Europe and North America Hub).

The Presbyterian Church of South Sudan has close ties to the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America and a representative from that denomination will also attend the Ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace.

Weavers of concord

Pope Francis, leader of the world-wide Catholic Church, described the visit to South Sudan as an "important step".

"Archbishop Justin Welby and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, two dear brothers, will be my traveling companions when, in a few weeks' time, we will at last be able to travel to South Sudan," he said.

"Ours will be an ecumenical pilgrimage of peace.

"Let us pray that it may inspire Christians in South Sudan and everywhere to be promotors of reconciliation, patient weavers of concord, capable of saying no to the perverse and useless spiral of violence and of arms."

The Archbishop of Canterbury said: "I greatly look forward to this historic pilgrimage of peace to South Sudan with my dear brothers in Christ, Pope Francis and the Rev Dr Iain Greenshields.

"We hope to stand in solidarity with the people of South Sudan in their great struggles.

"We hope to support and encourage the continued unity of churches for the good of the nation.

"And we hope to encourage political leaders to pursue peace in this remarkable country.

"We pray that the symbolism of our joint visit will show that reconciliation and forgiveness are possible - and that relationships can be transformed."