By Spy Uganda Correspondent
“I am here with you, and I suffer for you and with you,” Pope Francis told people in South Sudan, as he visited those displaced by violence in one of the worst refugee crises worldwide.
His meeting came on the penultimate day of his six-day trip to Africa, where he also visited Congo bringing a message of peace to both impoverished and war-torn nations.
Meeting internally displaced people in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, the head of the Catholic Church was joined by Justin Welby, primate of the Anglican Church and Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the Church of Scotland. “We would like to give wings to your hope,” Francis said.
The U.N. estimates that more than 2 million people are internally displaced in South Sudan, despite a fragile peace after years of civil war.
An additional 2.3 million have fled to neighboring countries. Meanwhile South Sudan has taken in roughly 300,000 refugees, most of whom come from Sudan.
The United Nations ranks the refugee crisis in the region as the largest in Africa and the third largest in the world, with women and children worst affected.
There are seven reception camps for internally displaced people, set up by the U.N. since 2013. The largest, Bentiu Camp in the north of the country, was home to 120,000 refugees in 2022, as numbers surged because of nationwide flooding. The living conditions there have deteriorated, with a shortage of clean drinking water. Many children are malnourished and malaria and cholera are spreading.
“I am afraid of what my life and the lives of other children will be like in the future,” said Joseph Lat Gatmai, 16, who lives in the Bentiu camp.
Johnson Juma Alex, 14, told the pope that everything in the camp was cramped and crowded. “There’s no room to play soccer. Many children don’t go to school because there aren’t enough teachers or schools for everyone.”
Francis is calling for an end to violence, and emphasized that women need special protection. “Mothers, women are the key to transforming the country,” he said.
Earlier, the pope paid tribute to members of the clergy and missionaries who have been killed or injured in Africa.
“Many priests and women and men from religious orders have been victims of violence and of attacks in which they have lost their lives,” Francis said.
Those clergy had given their lives for the Gospel and closeness to the people, he said. “(This is) a wonderful testimony that they leave us and that invites us to continue on their path,” he said.
The pope also came with a message of peace and a day earlier called on leaders to end violence and invest in health policies and infrastructure improvements.
South Sudan routinely ranks as either the poorest or one of the poorest nations in the world. Years of civil war have left its populace desolate and often lacking basic services.
Francis was accompanied and supported in Juba by Welby and Greenshields, two Protestant church leaders from the former colonial power Britain.
That colonial past means the country is now a Christian-majority nation with the largest denominations being Catholic, Anglican or Episcopalian and Presbyterian. Together, the church leaders represent these three strands of Christianity.
The Africa trip was the pope’s first international journey this year. It was originally planned for July last year, but was postponed because of Francis’ knee ailment.