The visit to African states was actually announced as a "peace trip" by Pope Francis. Before his arrival in South Sudan, however, there was an act of violence that left many dead. The country is already marked by civil war and enormous poverty.
After his three-day visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Pope Francis has arrived in South Sudan, which is beset by civil war and extreme poverty. At the airport in the capital Juba, he was greeted by President Salva Kiir, among others. Hours before the arrival of the head of the church, crowds had already gathered on the streets of Juba. Many wore traditional clothing, waved the national flag, welcomed posters and sang.
During his "peace journey" the pontiff will speak to representatives of the government, the church and civil society. Meetings with victims of the five-year civil war from 2013 to 2018 are also on the program for the 86-year-old church leader.
Shortly before his arrival in South Sudan, another act of violence shook the country. 21 civilians were killed in a retaliatory armed attack by rival cattle herders in the center of the country.
South Sudan has been in a deep economic and political crisis since gaining independence from Sudan in 2011. The country still hasn't recovered from a five-year civil war that killed nearly 400,000 people. According to estimates by the World Bank, 80 percent of the twelve million inhabitants of South Sudan live in extreme poverty. Two thirds of the population suffer from hunger.
"We have suffered a lot. Now we want to achieve peace," said 36-year-old businessman Robert Michael under one of the many posters welcoming the Pope's visit to Juba. Hanah Zachariah, 20, who made a nine-day pilgrimage from her hometown to Juba for the Pope's visit, said she was "very much looking forward to seeing him".
The human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) had called on church leaders during the Pope's visit to South Sudan to put pressure on the country's leadership to improve the human rights situation and fight impunity in the country. South Sudan must take concrete steps to "stop attacks on civilians and ensure accountability for serious abuses," HRW said.
Authorities had declared Friday a public holiday and encouraged people to come in large numbers. Streets in the city had been tarred on the occasion of the Pope's visit. According to security authorities, 5,000 police officers were deployed.
The Pope's visit to the two African countries was originally planned for July 2022, but was canceled because of Francis' knee problems. For the Pope, it is the fifth trip to the African continent and his 40th trip abroad since he took office almost ten years ago.