Pope’s Gesture Leaves an Impression on South Sudanese Leaders

By Teresa Sfeir



The Vatican released a video of 82-year-old Pope Francis breathing heavily as he knelt to kiss the feet of President Salva Kiir and Vice Presidents Riek Machar and Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior of South Sudan, breaking papal protocol. The South Sudanese politicians were staying at his Vatican residence for a two-day spiritual retreat. “I ask you as a brother, remain in peace,” the Pope implored. “We have clearly heard the cry of the poor and the needy; it rises up to heaven, to the very heart of God the Father, who desires to grant them justice and peace.”

On May 7, President Kiir described his experience: “I was almost trembling because that thing has not happened before, except at the time when Jesus knelt down to wash the feet of His disciples.” Upon this, Kiir asked Machar to return to Juba during a speech to parliament in which he promised to remain faithful to the peace deal. “I have completely forgiven him [Machar], and all I ask from him is to become a peace partner, for he is no longer my opponent.”


The almost six-year-old civil war has turned nearly 2.3 million South Sudanese into refugees in neighboring countries, and 1.87 million are internally displaced within South Sudan. It is the largest refugee crisis in Africa and the third largest refugee crisis in the world. The September 2018 peace deal was supposed to be the start of a new beginning, culminating in a power sharing government on May 12. However, the formation of the government has been delayed another six months for several reasons. One of them is the failure to combine the forces of armed militants and create a unified army.

Machar, who is currently in Khartoum, Sudan, fears that his personal security may be at risk if he returns to Juba. After all, he had escaped on foot under gunfire after a similar peace deal had come to nothing in 2016. The authenticity of Kiir’s noble speech is also questionable, for he is working to block the formation of a war crimes tribunal that is part of the agreement. Despite their public compliance to the Pope’s gesture, a deep sense of mistrust is entrenched between Kiir and Machar. Whether something will come out of his gesture is uncertain, but its impression will not soon be lost to the world.

Theological Reflection

“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you (John 13:14,15 NKJV).”

His disciples eyed one another silently. What was he doing? They were the ones supposed to wash his feet, yet he was doing the job of the lowest servant in the household. He had acted out a parable for them, for he knew better that actions spoke louder than words. They were to do the same as he had done for them. This was the attitude that should mark His followers, especially those that lead others.

Following in the footsteps of his Master, the Pope’s pastoral move was an appeal to South Sudanese leaders to shepherd their nation wisely and seek peace through dialogue, negotiation and forgiveness. His move also serves as a humble peacemaking model that church leaders can follow in their respective home countries.