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Pope Francis Stuns Social Media Kneeling, Kissing South Sudanese Leaders’ Feet

Pope Francis Stuns Social Media Kneeling, Kissing South Sudanese Leaders’ Feet

The gesture occurred during a spiritual retreat at the Vatican on April 11 where the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir and four of the nation's five designated Vice Presidents; Riek Machar, James Wani Igga, Taban Deng Gai and Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior.

Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said the retreat was created 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".

"We are all aware that this meeting is something altogether special and in some sense unique, since it is neither an ordinary bilateral or diplomatic meeting between the Pope and Heads of State, nor an ecumenical initiative involving representatives of different Christian communities", Pope Francis said.

Since South Sudan's war broke out in 2013, parties to the conflict have been responsible for grave abuses including killings, torture, recruitment of child soldiers, rape, and other forms of sexual violence and forced displacement.

South Sudan plunged into civil war two years later after Kiir, a Dinka, fired Machar, from the Nuer ethnic group, from the vice presidency.

Peace is possible, Pope Francis told South Sudan leaders in the Vatican on Thursday.

"There will be fights among you, but let these be inside the office", Francis said, staring the leaders and other South Sudanese officials in the eye and urging them to respect their recent armistice and commit to forming a unity government next month.

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The arch-rivals last saw each other in October previous year, shortly after the signing of a power-sharing deal, when Machar made a brief return to Juba for the first time since fleeing on foot in a hail of gunfire in July 2016.

The South Sudanese delegation included former warring rebel leaders who clashed even after the country separated from the larger Sudan Republic.

He said: "I am asking you as a brother to stay in peace".

The unprecedented event was proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and approved by Pope Francis. There will be many problems but they will not overcome us.

More than a third have been uprooted from their homes and around 400,000 have died in the civil war, which plunged parts of the country into starvation and has been characterised by such extreme sexual violence and widespread ethnic cleansing that the United Nations warned in 2017 of a possible genocide.

Pope Francis will give a speech at the end of the retreat on Thursday afternoon.


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