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South Sudan Anticipates Pope Francis Visit

FILE - Pope Francis attends an audience with the President of South Sudan Salva Kiir at the Vatican, March 16, 2019. (Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS)

As South Sudan prepares to welcome Pope Francis later this week, many are hopeful his visit will promote peace in the country while others doubt the two-day visit will bring lasting change.

The pontiff will be welcomed at Juba International Airport Friday followed by a meeting with President Salva Kiir at the presidential palace. Francis will meet with religious leaders, authorities, civil society groups and members of the diplomatic corps during his stay.

Ter Manyang, an activist with the Center for Peace and Advocacy, told VOA's South Sudan in Focus program that the pope's visit will revive the hope for peace in the country.

"It is a sign of peace. It’s going to give hope to the South Sudanese citizens and I hope our leaders change their minds from unwillingness to implement the peace agreement. Because now when you look at the roadmap, the time has already elapsed," said Manyang referring to the 2018 peace deal that ended the country's civil war.

Others are less optimistic about the impact Francis' visit will have.

"If I were pope I would ask just one question to the leaders: 'Are you now happy that you have come back from the retreat and I have found the situation this way? You have all the tools, you have all the international support, you have everything you want to change the lives of your people, but the situation still remains like this. Is it okay with you?'" Bol Deng Bol, chairperson of the civil society group Intrepid South Sudan, told South Sudan in Focus.

Paulino Lukudu, leader of the United South Sudan Party said Francis' trip to Juba shows his commitment to the country but complained that leaders of political parties who are not in government were excluded from a meeting with the pope.

"It is the political parties that form the government, it is the political parties that will implement the revitalized peace agreement and it is the political parties that will put down their ammunition and restore peaceful ways of addressing challenges," Lukudu said.

Peter Lomude, a member of the National Democratic Movement, an umbrella group of South Sudan Opposition Alliance, says he hopes Francis will find time to meet with other political leaders of the country "so that they will also be advised to work together to ensure the peace agreement is implemented" and South Sudanese "have an opportunity to choose the leaders they think are the right people to govern them."

The government intends to include leaders of political parties at the pope's reception at the presidential palace, according to South Sudan’s Information Minister Michael Makuei, but there will be "no political talks allowed here."

Two months ago, Kiir said he pulled out of Rome talks and accused holdout rebel groups of using the peace initiative to buy time.

South Sudan’s Minister for Presidential Affairs Barnaba Marial Benjamin said last week that the government is willing to resume political engagement "with hold-out groups of Thomas Cirilo, Pagan Amum and Paul Malong" as the country prepares to receive Francis and other church leaders.

He did not say when the talks would resume.

The pope and Kiir last met in 2019 when the pontiff hosted the president and First Vice President Riek Machar at the Vatican.

In South Sudan, Francis is scheduled to meet with bishops, priests, deacons and seminarians at St. Therese Cathedral on Saturday after a meeting with Kiir on Friday.

He also expected to meet with members of the Society of Jesus, followed by a meeting with internally displaced South Sudanese at Freedom Hall.

Francis will celebrate Mass at the John Garang Mausoleum Sunday followed by a farewell ceremony at Juba International Airport.