Pope Francis arrived Friday in Juba for the first time in South Sudan to promote peace and reconciliation in the world's youngest country, torn by civil war and extreme poverty.
This "peace pilgrimage", after a stop in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is the first visit by a pontiff to South Sudan since the predominantly Christian nation gained independence from Muslim-majority Sudan in 2011 after decades of conflict.
The civil war that raged between 2013 and 2018 left 380.000 dead and millions displaced.
The pope, seated in a wheelchair, was greeted at 14:45 p.m. (12 GMT) after his plane landed at Juba airport by a number of dignitaries, including South Sudan's President Salva Kiir.
Jorge Bergoglio will deliver a first speech in the afternoon to the authorities and the diplomatic corps.
This trip by Pope Francis follows a four-day visit to the DRC, plagued in the east by an armed offensive by rebel groups. Crowds began gathering along the streets of South Sudan's capital Juba hours before the pope's arrival, waving the national flag and waving banners. Some people wore traditional clothes or religious clothes, while others pushed dinghies, an AFP journalist noted.
The visit, Francis' fifth to Africa, was originally scheduled for 2022 but had to be postponed due to problems with the pope's knee.
In Juba, the pope will be accompanied by the heads of the Churches of England and Scotland, representatives of the two other Christian confessions of this country of 12 million inhabitants. The Church plays a surrogate role in areas without any government service and where aid workers are often attacked or even killed.
The NGO Human Rights Watch on Friday urged religious leaders to pressure South Sudan's rulers to "address the country's ongoing human rights crisis and widespread impunity".
"I'm very excited to see it," Hanah Zachariah, 20, told AFP, among dozens of pilgrims who walked nine days from the town of Rumbek to Juba, a journey of around 400 kilometers in an attempt to see the pope.
In 2019, a year after a peace agreement, Francis had received the two enemy brothers at the Vatican and knelt down to kiss their feet, begging them to make peace, a strong symbolic gesture that had marked the spirits. But the sovereign pontiff's calls for reconciliation have not been followed up and the violence continues.
On Thursday, the day before his arrival, at least 21 people were killed in a cattle rustling in the south of the country. Many hope that this move will put an end to the clashes. “We suffered a lot. Now we want to achieve peace,” Robert Michael, a 36-year-old businessman, said under one of the many billboards in Juba welcoming the pope.
Some 5.000 additional police and soldiers have been deployed to the streets, security officials said as Friday was declared a public holiday in the country.
Before his departure, the pope - who seemed tired - gave a last speech to the bishops of the DRC. He invited them not to limit themselves to "political action" to focus on the people, in a country where the Church traditionally acts as a counter-power, beyond its key role in education, culture or health.
In Kinshasa, capital of the largest Catholic country in Africa, the sovereign pontiff multiplied condemnations of deadly violence in the east, called on leaders to put an end to corruption and on young people to be "actors" in the future of the country.
Highly anticipated, this visit surrounded by immense fervor was marked on Wednesday by a sequence charged with strong emotion during which Francis launched a "vibrant appeal" in the face of the "cruel atrocities" perpetrated in the east of the country, after hearing the testimonies of victims.
The sovereign pontiff was also "outraged" by the "bloody and illegal exploitation of the wealth" of the DRC, where violence by armed groups has killed hundreds of thousands of people and thrown millions more on roads.
The Editorial Board (with AFP)