As the world’s attention continues to be focused on a bloody war in Ukraine, a papal announcement today concerning Pope Francis’ trip to Africa in July serves to remind people that other parts of the world are still in need of healing from long standing conflicts.
The Vatican on Wednesday released images of the logos and mottos for Pope Francis’s upcoming apostolic journey to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan in July.
In both cases, the mottos reflect the hope for reconciliation. The motto for the Congo visit, in French, reads, “All reconciled in Jesus Christ.” The one for Sudan, taken from the Gospel According to St. John, reads, “I pray that all may be one.” The logos contain images such as a dove of peace, two clasping hands, and the Christian cross.
Pope Francis will visit the Democratic Republic of Congo from July 2 to 5, stopping in the cities of Kinshasa and Goma. He will be in South Sudan from July 5-7, visiting the capital, Juba.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, the old Belgian colony formerly known as Zaire, has been plagued by civil conflict since the 1960s. The inauguration of Felix Tshisekedi as president in early 2019 was the first transfer of power to an opposition candidate without significant violence or a coup since the DRC’s independence, according to the CIA World Factbook. But the country, particularly in the East, continues to experience violence perpetrated by more than 100 armed groups active in the region, including the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and assorted Mai Mai militias. The UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) has operated in the region since 1999 and is the largest and most expensive UN peacekeeping mission in the world.
From July 5-7, Francis will be in South Sudan, making it the first papal visit in the country’s short history. South Sudan seceded from Sudan when its citizens overwhelmingly voted for independence in a 2011 referendum on self-determination. Several disputes between Sudan and South Sudan remain unresolved, including demarcation of the border, status and rights of the citizens of each country in the other, and the status of the Abyei region, according to the CIA World Factbook.
On December 15, 2013, long standing political tensions between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and First Vice President Riek Machar erupted into widespread violence, which led to Machar’s fleeing the country. An Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) conducted mediation efforts between the parties, which resulted in the signing of the Agreement to Resolve the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS) in August 2015. In April 2016, Riek Machar returned to Juba and, under the terms of the ARCSS, participated in the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity. Progress on implementation of the Agreement was slow, and on July 8, 2016, fighting broke out between forces loyal to Kiir and forces loyal to Machar, and again Machar fled the country. In Machar’s absence, the government launched large-scale offensives throughout the country to consolidate its power, exacerbating an already dire humanitarian crisis. During this time, abuses against civilians, including sexual violence, forced more than 4 million people to flee their homes. The number of people killed in the fighting in the post-independent period is estimated to be 400,000 as of early 2021, and approximately 8.3 million people required humanitarian assistance in 2021, an 11% increase compared to 2020. Relief agencies projected that up to 7.9 million people – more than 65% of the country’s population – would need emergency food assistance from October 2021 to May 2022, making South Sudan one of the most food-insecure countries in the world.
In February 2020, the parties formed the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity (RTGoNU), and Machar returned to Juba. The South Sudanese government has shown limited political will to implement all chapters of the peace agreement.
Late 2021 saw several milestones, including the formation of the Transitional National Legislative Assembly and partial screening of the Necessary Unified Forces, and President Salva Kiir and other political elites stated publicly that South Sudan would hold national elections in 2023. President Kiir and First Vice President Machar, however, remain deadlocked over the command structure of the unified forces – a major piece of the 2018 peace agreement and a necessary component to holding national elections.
In a striking gesture during the April 2019 visit of South Sudanese leaders to the Vatican, the Pope suddenly knelt down and kissed their feet to urge them to reconcile. Also present at that meeting was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who could well be part of the Pope Francis’ trip to Africa in July.