Pope Francis, in a dramatic gesture after an unprecedented retreat at the Vatican, knelt to kiss the feet of South Sudan’s previously warring leaders on Thursday as he urged them to not return to a civil war.
He appealed to President Salva Kiir, his former deputy turned rebel leader Riek Machar, and three other vice presidents to respect an armistice they signed and commit to forming a unity government next month.
“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,” Francis said in improvised remarks.
The leaders appeared to be stunned as the 82-year-old pope, who suffers from chronic leg pain, was helped by aides as he knelt with difficulty to kiss the shoes of the two main opposing leaders and several other people in the room.
His appeal was made even more pressing as anxiety grew in South Sudan that Thursday’s coup in neighboring Sudan might put at risk the fragile peace deal that ended South Sudan’s brutal five-year civil war.
The Vatican brought together South Sudanese leaders for 24 hours of prayer and preaching inside the pope’s residence in an attempt to heal bitter divisions before the country is due to set up a unity government.