Nobody was more surprised by Pope Francis’ unusual gesture, made as a plea for peace.
In an address to his country’s parliament, the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, said he was “shocked” when Pope Francis kissed his feet last month at a spiritual retreat arranged by the Vatican to promote peace in South Sudan.
“I was shocked and trembled when His Holiness the Pope kissed our feet. It was a blessing and can be a curse if we play games with the lives of our people,” President Kiir said, according to report in africanews.com.
Attendees at the retreat, held on April 10 and 11, included President Mayardit and five designated Vice Presidents, including Riek Machar, who has been the main opposition leader.
At the time of the retreat, the leaders were expected to take office together on May 12 in a power-sharing arrangement that observers hoped would end the conflict and discord that has plagued the country since 2013.
According to africanews.com, Machar is in Khartoum, and has been reluctant to return to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, in order to set up the unity government, out of concerns for his safety.
In his address, President Kiir called on his former rival to return.
“I re-extend my invitation to Dr Riek Machar to return home. I have completely forgiven him, and he is no longer my opponent. I call upon all armed opposition to work with our army to continue to open corridors for freedom of movement and open up trade routes,” he said.
According to a report in catholicoutlook.org, President Kiir’s spokesman told the media that “other opposition figures were already in Juba, and this should be a sign that similarly Machar’s ‘security will be taken care of while the government is formed.’”
The conflict, which began in December of 2013, after President Kiir accused his former deputy, Machar and others of attempting to overthrow the government, has cost the lives of an estimated 400,000 people.