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The Ecumenical Peace Pilgrimage to South Sudan

    A Christmas service in Darfur, South Sudan.

    Between the 5th and 7th of July in 2022, Pope Francis, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Right Reverend Dr Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, visited South Sudan on what they described as a ‘pilgrimage of peace’. This was the first time that any Western head of state or religious leader had visited South Sudan, and was also the first time that the leaders of the Catholic Church, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland had undertaken a joint political mission. The Pope also visited the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of his wider trip.

    The Republic of South Sudan became independent in 2011 as part of a peace agreement following the Second Sudanese Civil War. A civil war broke out within South Sudan in 2013, which was partially resolved in 2018 by the entry of the leaders of the two principle warring factions, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, into a coalition government as President and First Vice-President respectively. While the civil war officially thus ended, the country has continued to suffer economic deprivation, conflict (principally along interethnic lines), and a deeply unstable coalition government. Roughly 400,000 people had died due to the civil war and subsequent conflicts by 2022.

    In 2019, the Catholic Kiir and Presbyterian Machar from South Sudan visited Rome for a spiritual retreat, where they were joined by Archbishop Welby and the then-Moderator of the General Assembly Colin Sinclair, during which Pope Francis kissed the politicians’ feet and begged them to work for peace in South Sudan. It was also during this retreat that it was determined that the three religious leaders would visit the country. Delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and then by Pope Francis’ poor health, the pilgrimage was finally able to take place in 2022.

    Power and Pilgrimage

    The Visualising Peace Project was fortunate to be joined in one of our recent seminars by Rev Fiona Smith, Principal Clerk of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, who had taken part in the pilgrimage. She was able to offer insights into how the organisers of the pilgrimage understood it, and how it differed in nature from a secular diplomatic mission.

    More than 60% of the people of South Sudan are Christians, and so are most of its political leaders. This gives Christian leaders a degree of authority (both moral and political) which secular often politicians lack. This authority has been leveraged carefully in the past: Archbishop Welby, for instance, told South Sudan’s leaders, in reference to their lack of progress since the 2019 retreat, ‘We had hoped and prayed for more. We expected more. You promised more.’[1] Rev Smith told us that she understood such ‘speaking truth to power’ as an integral part of her practice as a Christian, and as a minister specifically. She also talked about the distinctive freedom of speech, as well as authoritative voice, which can come from a position of faith: a certain frankness and critical commentary is possible, when religious leaders remind political leaders of key tenets of the faith that they share.

    On the other hand, the framing of the mission as a pilgrimage helped it to avoid the arrogance – and the appearance of arrogance – which might otherwise have marred the three western leaders’ visit. Pilgrimages in the Christian tradition are seen as a process of learning and spiritual growth for the pilgrim, which necessitates an attitude of humility. Rev. Fiona Smith stressed how important it was that those undertaking this peace pilgrimage communicated their openness to be changed by it, not only their desire to effect change on the ground at their destination. Mutuality was stressed, rather than top-down peace-building from global north to global south.

    The fact that such a significant moment in inter-church relations – the first ever joint pilgrimage or mission by the leaders of the three denominations – took place in South Sudan also helped to communicate the significance which these religious leaders placed in the country. The message that Africa should not be treated as a mere periphery in global politics was also directed, to an extent, at the West itself, particularly as western countries including the UK have cut aid to South Sudan in recent years, despite the country’s growing humanitarian crisis. This is another example of the ways in which religious leaders can undertake peace-building endeavours which not only step outside and go beyond secular missions but which can also critique them, perhaps even helping to refine or redirect the focus of international politics.

    In her reflections on the significance of language and framing, Rev. Fiona Smith underlined another aspect of religious peace-building which is brought out in Mario Aguilar’s 2021 book, Pope Francis: Journeys of a Peacemaker. She reflected on the ways in which religious leaders can draw on tenets and teachings of their faith to redefine or expand concepts of ‘war’, for instance to include economic corruption as well as armed violence, and to connect human rights abuses with other forms of conflict. This leaves less ‘room to hide’ for political leaders who may want to focus attention on armed actors and away from challenging aspects of governance and civic life which are fuelling or exacerbating conflict. By the same token, leaders speaking from a position of faith are more able to transcend national and international politics and elevate conversations about peace-building to the universal, human scale: language of friendship, brotherhood/sisterhood, common humanity, compassion and love can take political discussions to places which secular discourses (of security, economics, borders, etc) often don’t reach. The language and perspective of religious leaders can (sometimes) offer new, more humanising perspectives on long-running political conflicts, and in places where those leaders’ words carry weight, this can (sometimes) be transformational.

    It is difficult to quantify the impact of a ‘peace pilgrimage’ of this kind. Certainly those involved generally considered it a success – there were no major incidents, truth was spoken to power by people whose words had moral, social, religious and political authority, and the pilgrimage was received enthusiastically by the tens of thousands of South Sudanese people who gathered to take part in it. The visit’s impact on its western participants will have been significant quite apart from its impact on South Sudan itself. The pilgrimage of peace, with its emphasis on the visitors’ humility and the compassion and mutual understanding that all humans should offer to each other, provides a promising alternative model to traditional diplomatic missions, and such a positive joint action by the leaders of churches which have themselves historically been in conflict is itself a welcome development.

    What do you think?

    • How much media coverage does conflict in South Sudan tend to get, compared with other conflicts around the world?
    • The land that is now South Sudan was previously ruled as a British protectorate. How might this make a ‘peace pilgrimage’ by British religious leaders problematic?
    • What advantages and disadvantages do you see in religious interventions such as this in long-running political conflicts?
    • Do you think that the language of friendship and common humanity can be just as effectively leveraged by non-religious leaders as by figures like the Pope?
    • Are there other areas in politics or diplomacy in which the pilgrimage model could be productive?

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

    You might also enjoy ‘Peace in Faith and Practice‘, ‘Little Gidding‘, ‘Om Shanti‘, ‘Make me a channel of your peace‘, and ‘Padre Steve’s Christmas Journey of Healing‘.

    Thomas Frost, April 2023

    [1] This is a press release from the Archbishop of Canterbury reflecting on the pilgrimage. – This article in Time contains more information about the pilgrimage. – This Africa News article, published before it took place, takes a balanced view of the pilgrimage’s prospects, and on Christian churches’ role in the country more generally.,Jesuits%20working%20in%20the%20DRC. This article, also written in advance of the pilgrimage, reflects on the challenges.

    A more critical perspective is taken, in retrospect, in this piece (which focuses on the Pope’s visit to the DRC, not his tie in South Sudan):

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