Pope Francis shakes hands with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir during a private audience at the Vatican March 16, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media) See POPE-SOUTH-SUDAN March 18, 2019.

Let there be peace in Sudan, writes Sonnie Ekwowusi

Pope Francis’ untrammeled commitment to peace in the world especially in the Middle East and Sudan are indeed praiseworthy. Pope Francis is following the footsteps of his predecessors in the papacy. You will recall that several popes had had several peace meetings with several sitting world leaders to find solution to problems wracking the world. For example, shortly after the First World War in 1919 President Woodrow Wilson was received at the Vatican by Pope Benedict XV to foster peace in the world.

President Eisenhower visited Pope John XXIII in Rome to broker peace in the crisis-torn world. In his epic Encyclical, Pacem in Terris, Pope John XX111 established four pillars upon which peace should be built. On October 6, 1979 President Jimmy Carter had the pleasure of hosting St. John Paul 11 in what was later recorded as the first visit of a Catholic Pontiff to the White House. With 104 trips outside Italy (16 trips to the African continent) St. John Paul 11 was outstanding for his tenacity in promoting peace, tolerance, commitment to social justice, respect for human dignity and inter-religious dialogues.

In fact St. John Paul 11 acted directly as intermediary in the promotion of justice and peace in countries where peace was threatened. Recall his audience on 15th December 1982 with Yasser Arafat on the peaceful settlement of the Palestinian question. Not to talk of his famous meeting with King Hassan 11 on August 19th 1995 that was attended by well over 80,000 youths. Or, his visits to Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Cameroun and Nigeria. In fact his visit to Nigeria during the reign of Sani Abacha will remain indelibly engraved on the minds of many Nigerians, at least for the fact that the Pope came to Nigeria primarily to solicit with Abacha to give peace a chance. Remember President Bush’s meeting with Pope emeritus Benedict XV1 to promote peace in the world?

So Pope Francis is following the precedents already set by his predecessors in the papacy. That was why shortly after he became pope he brought together Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomaios I and other seemingly irreconcilable foes to the Vatican Garden to explore new ways of finding and building peace in Jerusalem, Middle East and the entire world.

In an age in which recourse to force rather than due process in the settlement of disputes has become a statecraft, the identification of some common values by the Vatican on which to build a new international order where justice, service, peace and respect for human dignity reigns is simply admirable.

Last week Pope Francis organized a retreat at the Vatican for South Sudan leaders and their warring opposition to broker peace in the war-torn region. You may be aware that for nearly 30 years dictator Omar al-Bashir had been unleashing unspeakable terrorism and oppression on Sudanese. Therefore it is not surprising that Al-Bahir has become the common enemy of mankind.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has since declared him wanted on charges of war crimes and other atrocities. The cheering news is that after many months of anti-government protests culminating in what I would call a civilian-military putsch Omar was finally forced out of power last week. While he reigned, he perpetuated terrorism and genocide in Darfur. He presided over long-reigning civil wars between north and south Sudan, which ended in a peace agreement in 2005.

Pursuant to a referendum, South Sudan eventually broke away from Sudan in 2011. But two years later South Sudan was engulfed in a civil war after Salva Kiir removed his former deputy turned rebel leader Riek Machar from the vice presidency. Since then darkness and mayhem have overtaken south Sudan. So far about 400,000 have died. About one third of the country’s 12 million people have been socially displaced, sparking off Africa’s worst refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Pained by the ugly scenario Pope Francis had no option but to organize the retreat for South Sudanese leaders and their warring oppositions and rebels. It was a two-day retreat or what Cardinal Parolin dubbed a “spiritual, ecumenical and diplomatic” project. It took place in the Vatican. Among the preachers at the retreat were Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda, and Jesuit Father Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator of Nigeria.

Other personalities who attended the retreat were the spiritual leader of the Anglican community worldwide Justin Welby, some members of the South Sudan Council of Churches, and other Catholic and Presbyterian church leaders from Africa. At the end of the retreat, Pope Francis told the attendees in Italia, “There will be struggles, disagreements among you but keep them within you, inside the office, so to speak. But in front of the people, hold hands united. So, as simple citizens, you will become fathers of the nation…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.”

· Thereafter Pope Francis did something dramatic. Stooping down in his majestic papal white cassock and zucchetto (skull cap), he lowered his stomach flat to the bare ground, bent his head towards the feet of the standing South Sudan leaders and their warring opposition leaders and started kissing each of their feet (Not their feet as such because they had their shoes on: the Pope was kissing their dirty shoes). With this humble gesture the pope appealed to the war lords to sheath their swords so that peace could reign in South Sudan. The visitors and several onlookers were impressed by Pope Francis’ uncommon humility.

By the way, Francis is 82. He is the pope and successor of St. Peter. Besides, he suffers from chronic leg pain. He also suffers from lingering physical fatigue. Yet he was not deterred from kneeling down, supported by his aides and the South Sudan leaders themselves, to kiss the shoes of the leaders and some other persons in the room. We hope that lasting peace will return to war-torn Sudan soon. The warring South Sudan leaders and their opposition should reciprocate Pope Francis’ gesture and kiss the feet of their Sudanese brothers and sisters irrespective of tribal, political and ideological differences. Let there be peace in Sudan.