(From left on red carpet) The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Pope Francis, President of South Sudan Salva Kiir and Iain Greenshields from Church of Scotland pose for a photograph at the Presidential Palace in Juba, South Sudan, on February 3, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

JUBA, South Sudan: Pope Francis arrived in South Sudan on Friday for the second and final leg of his African pilgrimage, planning to encourage the young country’s stalled peace process and to draw international attention to the continued fighting there.

South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, greeted Francis at the international airport in Juba, the capital, as a crowd of thousands nearby undulated and sang in 96-degree Fahrenheit (35.5-degree Celsius) heat.

The airport road was full of Christians, Muslims and traditional dancers. Some wore T-shirts with a portrait of the pope.

In a first, the pope will be accompanied during his time in South Sudan by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the global Anglican Communion, and by Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Together, the three leaders represent the main religious traditions active in South Sudan, a predominantly Christian nation.

Welby said he was horrified by the latest killings on the day before the pilgrimage.

“It is a story too often heard across South Sudan. I again appeal for a different way: for South Sudan to come together for a just peace,” he said on Twitter.

The pope, leader of the world’s 1.4 billion Roman Catholics, had wanted to visit South Sudan for years but each time planning for a trip began it had to be postponed because of instability on the ground.

In one of the most remarkable gestures of his papacy, Francis knelt to kiss the feet of South Sudan’s previously warring leaders during a meeting at the Vatican in April 2019, urging them not to return to civil war.

“The pope is closest to God,” Poni Jadalla, 45, said as she waited to welcome Francis on the first-ever papal visit to the South Sudan. “Let the pope give us peace so that this country can develop and no more bloodshed.”

Civil war and conflict

South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, gained independence from majority Muslim Sudan in 2011 but has been beset by civil war and conflict. The Christian leaders are aiming to give a joint call for South Sudan’s political leaders to put aside their differences and work for the good of their people.

Continued fighting, including attacks this week in the south that killed 27 people, has displaced some 2 million people and hampered implementation of a 2018 peace deal, but residents said the arrival of Francis gave them hope.

“The pope will bring us peace,” Monica Lado, a 40-year-old from Juba, said on the eve of the three leaders’ arrival.

Francis travelled to South Sudan from Congo, where he had a final appointment Friday in Kinshasa with Congo’s bishops. On Thursday, the pope received an enthusiastic response at a stadium event where he encouraged young people to work for a peaceful and honest future.

In South Sudan, a group of about 80 Catholics from the central city of Rumbek walked for nine days, covering an estimated 300 kilometers (around 190 miles), and arrived in Juba to cheers on Thursday. The pilgrims were sore, tired and had blisters, but said they hoped to attend Francis’ big Mass on Sunday and take back blessings to their homes and families.

In Juba, Francis is widely expected to repeat his call for both men and all parties in South Sudan to commit to making progress on the accord and to put an end to corrupt practices. Already, delays forced the postponement of the country’s first presidential election for another two years.

In addition, Francis is expected to call for an end to continued clashes and the dreadful plight of women in South Sudan.