On Thursday in the Vatican in an unprecedented gesture Pope Francis kisses the feet of South Sudan President Salva Kiir as he prays and begs for peace in that country.
“I’m asking you with my heart,” the pope said to the president, Salva Kiir, and the opposition leader, Riek Machar, clutching his hands in front of his chest. “Stay in peace.”
The dramatic gesture happened during a spiritual retreat by the two men at the Vatican and came only hours after the military in neighboring Sudan ousted its longtime leader, President Omar al-Bashir, after 30 years of authoritarian rule.
According to The New York Times, Pope Francis sat at his desk in a small room inside the Vatican facing the South Sudanese leaders, who were seated on a couch. The pope read remarks in which he said that while God’s gaze was on them, “there is another gaze directed to you: is the gaze of your people, and it expresses their ardent desire for justice, reconciliation and peace.”
The pope encouraged the two leaders to find common ground.
“I urge you, then, to seek what unites you, beginning with the fact that you belong to one and the same people, and to overcome all that divides you,” he said. “People are wearied, exhausted by past conflicts: Remember that with war, all is lost!”
At the conclusion of his speech, the pope offered some impromptu remarks, appealing to them again to keep the peace.
According to Human Rights Watch, since the start of the conflict, almost 2 million people have been internally displaced, and another 2 million have sought refuge in neighboring countries, with 1 million in Uganda alone. More than 230,000 people are sheltering in six United Nations bases in towns across the country.