Vatican postpones pope’s trip to South Sudan

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The Vatican has postponed a trip by Pope Francis to war-torn South Sudan planned for later this year, which the pope had hoped to undertake together with Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told journalists that while the trip is still being considered it is “not for this year.” Burke did not say when the trip, which had been tentatively planned for October, might now take place.

Postponement of the visit comes after Italian media reports that Francis was forced to cancel his plans due to security concerns. Il Messaggero, Rome’s daily newspaper, reported May 29 that the pope made the decision reluctantly “after the information coming to his desk left him with few alternatives.”

South Sudan is the world’s newest country, forming after it gained independence from Sudan in 2011. A political struggle broke out in the country in 2013, leading to a civil war in which an estimated 300,000 people have died and some 3 million have been displaced.

Francis had hoped to make a visit to the country in a push for peace, much like his earlier visit to the Central African Republic in 2015. A trip with Archbishop Justin would have been the first time the leaders of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches had traveled in such a way together.

Vatican officials had been in South Sudan earlier this month to assess the possibility of a papal visit.

Services available in South Sudan at the moment are minimal. The arrivals section at the Juba airport, where Francis would likely have to land, is currently a small outdoor area with wooden planks covering muddy soil.

An official with knowledge of the preparations for the possible visit said Francis had been presented with the possibility of making a short several hour trip to the country as a stop-over while visiting another nearby nation.

The source also said the pope balked when he was told that given the security concerns it would not be possible for him to leave the Juba airport, believing that if he made a visit only to the airport it would present a bad symbol to the country.

It is unclear what other African country or countries Francis might have been considering visiting. Before heading to the Central African Republic in 2015, the pope made stops in Kenya and Uganda. Ethiopia’s Catholic community has also invited the pope to visit.

Francis had a private meeting with South Sudan President Salva Kiir during his Uganda visit two years ago. The two leaders spoke for 15 minutes in an encounter arranged by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

The only papal trip abroad currently confirmed by the Vatican for the rest of 2017 is a visit to Colombia set for Sept. 6-11. There is also discussion of a possible visit to India and Bangladesh, which is currently unconfirmed.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac. Global Sisters Report international correspondent Chris Herlinger contributed to this report.]

A version of this story appeared in the June 16-29, 2017 print issue.

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