Pope Francis has kissed the feet of the South Sudan’s previous warring leaders, imploring them to maintain the “fragile” peace that exists between them.
On Thursday, during a two-day spiritual retreat at the Vatican, the pope pleaded with President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, his former deputy turned rebel leader, and three other vice presidents to honour the armistice they signed and commit to forming a unity government in May.
“I am asking you as a brother to stay in peace. I am asking you with my heart, let us go forward. There will be many problems but they will not overcome us. Resolve your problems,” the pope said after he performed the rare gesture.
The pontiff who spoke in Italian — which was translated by an aide into English — added that “but in front of the people, hold hands united. So, as simple citizens, you will become fathers of the nation.”
The leaders were apparently shocked to see the 82-year-old pontiff — who was helped by aides — got on his knees with difficulty to kiss the shoes of the two main opposing leaders and several other people in the room.
Kiir and Machar had clashed in 2013, leading to a civil war that left roughly 400,000 people in South Sudan dead. The duo however signed a peace agreement in 2018 that brought the war to an end.
The pontiff’s dramatic and unprecedented gesture is coming barely hours after the military in neighboring Sudan ousted President Omar al-Bashir, its longtime leader, after 30 years of authoritarian rule.