With plans to visit South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo this year thwarted by ongoing conflict, Pope Francis on Thursday led a prayer vigil for peace in the two countries, asking for an end to war and comfort for victims of the violence.
“We want to sow seeds of peace in the lands of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in all lands devastated by war,” the Pope said.
Pope Francis had planned to visit South Sudan this year alongside Anglican Primate Archbishop Joseph Welby for an ecumenical trip aimed at promoting peace in the conflict-ridden country. However, due to safety concerns, the visit was postponed until the situation on the ground stabilises.
Though he was unable to go, Pope Francis said in his homily for the prayer vigil that “we know that prayer is more important, because it is more powerful: prayer works by the power of God, for whom nothing is impossible”.
South Sudan has been in the middle of a brutal civil war for more than three years, which has divided the young country between those loyal to its President Salva Kiir and those loyal to former vice president Reik Machar. The conflict has also bred various divisions of militia and opposition groups.
Since the beginning of the war, some 4 million citizens have left the violence-stricken country in hopes of finding peace, food and work. In August alone Uganda received the one-millionth South Sudanese refugee, highlighting the urgency of the crisis as the world’s fastest growing refugee epidemic.
For those who have not fled the nation, many internally displaced persons (IDPs) are seeking refuge in churches for protection from violence. Most IDPs are typically women, children and those who have lost their families in the war.
Many are too fearful to stay in their homes because they know they could be killed, tortured, raped or even forced to fight. And despite successful partnerships between the local Church, aid agencies and the government, refugees in many areas still need a proper supply of food.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, political unrest first erupted in 2015 after a bill was proposed which would potentially delay the presidential and parliamentary elections. The bill was widely seen by the opposition as a power grab on the part of Kabila.
Relations between the government and the opposition deteriorated further when a Kasai chief was killed last August, after calling on the central government to quit meddling in the territory, insisting it be controlled by the local leaders.
Catholic bishops in the country had helped to negotiate an agreement, which hoped to prevent a renewed civil war by securing an election this year for the successor of President Kabila. However, in January of this year, the bishops said the agreement was expected to fail unless both parties were willing to compromise. In March, the bishops withdrew from mediation talks.
With a history of bloody ethnic rivalries and clashes over resources, fears have developed that the violence in Kasai, a hub for political tension, will spread to the rest of the nation and even lead to the involvement of neighboring countries.
In the past year alone, more than 3,300 people have been killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Kasai region. The death toll includes civilians caught in the crossfire of a brutal fight between the Congolese army and an opposing militia group.
In his brief homily for the prayer vigil, Pope Francis noted how in the entrance hymn, the words “the risen Christ invites us, alleluia!” were sung in Swahili. As Christians, “we believe and know that peace is possible, because Jesus is risen,” he said.
The prayer vigil consisted of five prayers each followed by a song and prayers of intercession, as well as the famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi asking God to make him an instrument of peace.
The prayers consisted of petitions for conversion; to overcome indifference and divisions; for women who are victims of violence in war zones; for all those who cause war and for those who have responsibility at the local and international levels; for all innocent victims of war and violence and for all those committed to working for peace in South Sudan and the Congo.
The pope asked that God would support all those who work daily to combat evil with good through words and deeds of fraternity, respect, encounter and solidarity, and prayed that the Lord would strengthen government officials and leaders with a spirit that is “noble, upright, steadfast and courageous in seeking peace through dialogue and negotiation”.
“May the Lord enable all of us to be peacemakers wherever we find ourselves, in our families, in school, at work, in the community, in every setting,” he said.
Image: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine