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Pope Francis calls for end to South Sudan killings, kisses feet of leaders

In an act of awe that shook his guests, Pope Francis has kissed the feet of South Sudan leaders, in a spontaneous and out of protocol gesture meant to promote peace and end conflicts in the country that have led to countless deaths.

“To the three of you who signed the Peace Agreement, I ask you, as a brother, remain in peace. I ask you from the heart”, Vatican News quoted the Pope as saying.

South Sudan’s political leaders including leaders of the two main warring factions, President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, a Vice President designate in the peace deal, had on Thursday concluded a two-day retreat at the Vatican brokered by Pope Francis that sought to heal bitter divisions that have fuelled the conflict since 2013. Another Vice President designate Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabio was also at the retreat.

“People are wearied, exhausted by past conflicts, remember that with war, all is lost! The Catholic pontiff said while appealing to the leaders. “Your people today are yearning for a better future, which can only come about through reconciliation and peace.” The Catholic pontiff added.

The pope said the meeting was “something altogether special and in some sense unique,” as it was neither an ordinary bilateral nor diplomatic meeting between the pope and heads of state, nor an ecumenical initiative involving representatives of different Christian communities.

Instead, it was a spiritual retreat.

The pope expressed hope that hostilities would finally cease, the armistice respected and that political and ethnic divisions would be surmounted, bringing a lasting peace for all citizens who dream of rebuilding the east African nation.

“You have started a process; may it end well. Although struggles will arise, he said, these should stay “within the office”. However in public, he said, “before the people: [keep your] hands united”. In this way, the Pope said, “from simple citizens, you will become fathers of the nation.”

South Sudan’s civil war, which broke out in late 2013, has killed tens of thousands and displaced more than 4 million South Sudanese from their homes. A peace deal last August has reduced the killings, but not stopped the fighting.

After his speech at the end of the retreat, Pope Francis kissed the feet of the former warring leaders and told them that their people are waiting for their return home, for reconciliation, and a new era of prosperity. Oil-rich South Sudan is due to set up a unity government in May, after the September 2018 peace deal that was negotiated in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. It had plunged into civil war two years after its independence from Sudan after Kiir, a Dinka, fired Machar, of the Nuer ethnic group, from the vice presidency. It is the world’s youngest nation.

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