The “poison of hatred” must be resisted, Pope Francis warned the people of South Sudan on Sunday, if they are to find the peace and prosperity that have eluded them throughout years of terrible ethnic strife.
Francis presided over an outdoor Mass on the grounds of a tomb for South Sudan’s liberation hero John Garang, who passed away in 2005, as his final public appearance before returning home. 100,000 people, according to the Vatican, attended the Mass.
The 86-year-old pope wove his homily around the themes that have dominated his trip to the world’s newest nation — reconciliation and mutual forgiveness for past wrongs. He begged the worshippers to shun the “blind fury of violence”.
Many in the crowd sang, drummed and ululated as Francis entered the dusty area, and his homily was repeatedly interrupted by loud cheers and more ululations.
Predominantly Christian South Sudan broke away from Muslim Sudan in 2011, but two years later plunged into a civil war that killed 400,000 people. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, bouts of fighting have continued to kill and displace large numbers of civilians.
At the end of the service, in a farewell address shortly before heading to the airport, the pope thanked the people of South Sudan for the affection they showed him.
“Dear brothers and sisters, I return to Rome with you even closer to my heart,” he told them. “Never lose hope. And lose no opportunity to build peace. May hope and peace dwell among you. May hope and peace dwell in South Sudan!”
The pope has had a longstanding interest in South Sudan. In one of the most remarkable gestures of his papacy, he knelt to kiss the feet of the country’s previously warring leaders during a meeting at the Vatican in 2019.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the global Anglican Communion, and Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, accompanied the pope during his visit to South Sudan.
The “pilgrimage of peace” was the first time in Christian history that leaders of the Catholic, Anglican and Reformed traditions conducted a joint foreign visit.
The three left the South Sudanese capital Juba on the same flight and were expected to land in Rome at around 5:15 p.m. (1615 GMT).