YAMBIO, South Sudan - South Sudanese people are hoping President Salva Kiir’s meeting with Pope Francis will bring greater stability to their country amid rising concerns that its fragile peace deal could collapse.
South Sudan is slowly emerging from five years of civil war, which killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions. A peace deal signed in September has stalled and international observers warn that the agreement could break down “over any number of outstanding disputes,” according to a report last week by the International Crisis Group.
“We are hoping that this exchange of visits between (Kiir and the pope) will create a change of attitudes,” Edmund Yakani executive director for Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, a local advocacy group, told The Associated Press on Sunday, the day after the visit.
With less than two months left in the pre-transitional period of the agreement, key issues have yet to be resolved. Those include shared security control of the capital Juba, when opposition leader Riek Machar returns to resume his role as First Vice-President, and disagreements over local boundaries, said the report.
Last month the Catholic Bishops of South Sudan released a statement, which was shared with the pope, saying they were extremely concerned about the state of the peace deal. The statement said “there is a sense of hopelessness that this agreement, like so many before it, will not succeed,” and that all parties were either still involved in active fighting or preparations for war.
While the pope didn’t say when he might visit South Sudan, he told Kiir that he still hopes to come “as a sign of closeness to the population and of encouragement for the peace process.”
Pope Francis was supposed to visit South Sudan in 2017 but called it off due to the dangerous security situation. Instead in 2017 the pope donated 460,000 euros ($522,000) in aid to South Sudan to help finance two hospitals, a school and farm equipment to show “the church’s presence and closeness with the suffering people,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson at the time.
But not everyone saw Saturday’s visit as a sign of reassurance with at least one South Sudan analyst calling the trip little more than a publicity stunt.
“A mere visit without a change of heart cannot help restore peace in South Sudan,” said Jacob Chol, senior political analyst and professor at the University of Juba. “The leader should genuinely change his heart in order to usher in sustainable peace for the downtrodden South Sudanese.”
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