By Courtney Grogan
The leaders of the newest country in the world will meet this week in the smallest country in the world.
Vatican City will host the leaders of war-torn South Sudan for a spiritual retreat April 10-11, with the goal of facilitating “encounter and reconciliation, in a spirit of respect and trust” for those who have “the responsibility to work for a future of peace and prosperity for the South Sudanese people,” Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said April 9.
The retreat, co-hosted by the Vatican Secretariat of State and the Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has the potential to be a peacebuilding effort that is “both ecumenical and diplomatic at the same time,” Gisotti said.
Each retreat participant will receive a gift of a Bible signed by Pope Francis, the Anglican Primate Justin Welby, and the former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, Reverend John Chalmers. The Bibles will be inscribed with the message, “Seek that which unites. Overcome that which divides.” The spokesman did not disclose which translation of the Bible will be gifted.
The highest civil and ecclesial authorities of South Sudan will participate in the “propitious occasion for reflection and prayer” in Vatican City’s Santa Marta Guesthouse, including the South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit and opposition leader Riek Machar.
Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda, and Father Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J., president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar, will provide the preaching during the retreat.
Pope Francis will also provide remarks at the retreat’s conclusion April 11.
Meanwhile, protests in neighbouring Sudan have been gaining momentum with thousands of people protesting the regime of President Omar al-Bashir in the streets of Khartoum this week.
Sudan’s economy was badly hit when South Sudan gained its independence in 2011 and took with it 80 percent of oil revenues. The European Union called for peaceful democratic reforms in Sudan in a statement released April 6.
Shortly after South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, a civil war broke out in the new country, between forces loyal to President Kiir and rebel groups led by Machar, the former vice president.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict, which has left 2.1 million people internally displaced, and another 2.5 million refugees in neighboring countries, according to the United Nations.
Following a tenuous peace deal signed September 12, South Sudan’s Catholic Bishops have been outspoken in their serious concerns with the agreement, calling the treaty “fatally flawed” because it does not address the root causes of the conflict.
Catholic Relief Services says that the Catholic Church is “one of the few institutions in South Sudan that has the credibility, capacity, and presence to effectively address concerns affecting society at large.”