Yesterday I arrived for the first time in the world’s youngest country, South Sudan, which has just celebrated the eighth anniversary of its independence. I was struck by the welcome I received from all the officials at the airport when they realised that I was a pastor coming to offer some theological education. This is a country where faith is important to people at all levels.
Sadly, it is also a country that has endured very troubled early years. Following half a century of civil war it has proved very difficult to build a peaceful country. After just two years, political infighting provoked a devastating conflict. It is estimated that in the past five years some 400,000 people have been killed, while 1.8 million are internally displaced and 2.5 million have fled the country, mostly to Uganda and Sudan. The scale of the suffering is beyond imagination.
No wonder it was a great relief when a cease-fire agreement was reached last year. However, the promised consolidation of peace through a power-sharing arrangement has not yet been implemented. People are therefore in something of a limbo – relieved that the fighting, in the main, has stopped but realising that the peace is precarious. For many, peace is their prayer, Sunday by Sunday and day by day.
In this they were joined in April by Pope Francis who hosted a spiritual retreat for South Sudan’s divided political leaders. It was a startling gesture when the Pope knelt to kiss the feet of the politicians, stating that “like a brother” he was asking them to “remain in peace”. Prayer for peace may well be the key to the future for South Sudan.
Among those who can lead such a movement of prayer and peace are students at the Nile Theological College in Juba. Tomorrow I start three weeks of intensive teaching at the College, humbled by the invitation and opportunity, and looking forward to the journey I will share with the students.