Pope stuns South Sudan leaders by kissing their feet, urges them to honor peace agreement
In a move that shocked all those present at the close of the two-day retreat held in the Vatican for leaders of South Sudan, an 82-year-old Pope Francis knelt and kissed the feet of the country's rival leaders.
The incident unfolded after the Pope made a plea with South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, and the opposition leader, Riek Machar, to proceed with what has become an uncertain peace agreement plagued with numerous difficulties.
"I express my heartfelt hope that hostilities will finally cease, that the armistice will be respected, that political and ethnic divisions will be surmounted and that there will be a lasting peace for the common good of all those citizens who dream of beginning to build the nation," he said during his closing statement at the retreat.
A video released by the Vatican then shows the Pope getting down on his knees and kissing both their feet, as well as the feet of Kiir's vice presidents. The move was an unprecedented one, even for Pope Francis, who is well-known for a ritual he holds every Holy Thursday where he washes the feet of prisoners.
South Sudanese Vice President Rebecca Nyandeng Garang said afterward that the Pope's actions had moved her profoundly. "I had never seen anything like that. Tears were flowing from my eyes," she was quoted saying.
Vatican News, the official media outlet of the Holy See, called the Pope's gesture "surprising and moving", and one that "cannot be understood except in the climate of reciprocal forgiveness that characterized the two days of retreat."
So, what exactly is the situation in South Sudan which has the Pope pleading that their shaky peace agreement is honored? The country, which gained independence from neighboring Sudan in 2011, and then again in 2013, is just seeing the back of a bloody civil war that has left an estimated 400,000 dead.
This Vatican retreat was held just a month before the end of the pre-transition period of a peace deal which agreed to Machar returning to the country on May 12 to serve as a Vice President so the two rival parties can form a stable government together. It's a complicated arrangement, considering Kiir had previously accused Machar — who was his former deputy at one point — of staging a coup to oust him.
This agreement was signed last September in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, but has since been met with repeated delays, missed deadlines, and infighting, with key aspects still nowhere close to being implemented.
There's also now an added fear that things could go further south because of the situation brewing in Sudan, where the military recently toppled the government of longtime President Omar al-Bashir and wrested control because al-Bashir had helped broker the initial peace agreement.
"Sudan has helped us with the peace deal," Machar said. "We hope that the new system will also focus on the agreement, ensuring that it will be implemented."