“A VOICE CRIES IN THE WILDERNESS”
PASTORAL MESSAGE OF THE CATHOLIC BISHOPS OF SOUTH SUDAN TO THE FAITHFUL
AND PEOPLE OF SOUTH SUDAN
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths
straight” (Mark 1:3).
These words of the prophet Isaiah, quoted by the evangelists Matthew and Mark, have been
greatly on our minds. We, the Catholic Bishops of South Sudan, have frequently written pastoral
messages urging change in our nation, but it seems they have had little effect. Nevertheless, the
Spirit is again calling upon us to write a pastoral message, to reassure you that we are aware of
your situation, to make your voice known to the world, and also to include some of the concrete
steps which we intend to take.
Therefore we address this pastoral message to the faithful people of South Sudan to give you hope
and courage. At our meeting in Juba from 21 st – 23 rd February 2017, along with the Apostolic
Nuncio to South Sudan and Kenya, Archbishop Charles Daniel Balvo, we “read the signs of the
times” 1 and listen to what God is saying to us through the concrete situation in which we find
ourselves. We have heard disturbing reports from all seven of our dioceses spanning the whole
country, and have reflected on how we should respond. God is speaking to us.
The Situation in South Sudan
Our country is not at peace. People live in fear. The civil war, which we have frequently described
as having no moral justification whatsoever, continues. Despite our calls to all parties, factions and
individuals to STOP THE WAR, nevertheless killing, raping, looting, displacement, attacks on
churches and destruction of property continue all over the country. In some towns there is calm,
but the absence of gunfire does not mean peace has come. In other towns, civilians are effectively
trapped inside the town due to insecurity on the surrounding roads.
While some fighting is between government and opposition forces, we are concerned to note that
much of the violence is being perpetrated by government and opposition forces against civilians.
There seems to be a perception that people in certain locations or from certain ethnic groups are
with the other side, and thus they are targeted by armed forces. They are killed, raped, tortured,
burned, beaten, looted, harassed, detained, displaced from their homes and prevented from
harvesting their crops. Some towns have become “ghost towns”, empty except for security forces
and perhaps members of one faction or tribe. Even when they have fled to our churches or to UN
camps for protection, they are still harassed by security forces. Many have been forced to flee to
neighbouring countries for protection. While the authorities may claim that they are free to return to
1 Gaudium et spes, Second Vatican Council.
their homes, in practice they fear to do so. In places the destruction has been described to us as
“scorched earth”; what have people got left to return to? All of this is a form of “collective
punishment”, which is outlawed as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.
The level of hatred associated with the conflict is increasing. While soldiers might be expected to
kill other soldiers in battle, the killing, torturing and raping of civilians is a war crime. However, not
only are they being killed, but their bodies are being mutilated and burned. People have been
herded into their houses which were then set on fire to burn the occupants. Bodies have been
dumped in sewage-filled septic tanks. There is a general lack of respect for human life.
The perpetrators of these crimes, the so-called “unknown gunmen” who are usually in uniform and
usually known, appear to act with impunity. We are still waiting for justice for the murder of our own
dear Sister Veronica, a doctor who was gunned down by soldiers while driving a clearly-marked
ambulance on 16 th May 2016. Her killers were arrested, but we have heard no more and we await
Our country is gripped by a humanitarian crisis – famine, insecurity and economic hardship. Our
people are struggling simply to survive. While there have been poor rains in many parts of the
country, there is no doubt that this famine is man-made, due to insecurity and poor economic
management. Hunger, in turn, creates insecurity, in a vicious circle in which the hungry man,
especially if he has a gun, may resort to looting to feed himself and his family. Millions of our
people are affected, with large numbers displaced from their homes and many fleeing to
neighbouring countries, where they are facing appalling hardships in refugee camps.
We are concerned that some elements within the government appear to be suspicious of the
Church. In some areas the Church has been able to mediate local peace deals, but these can
easily be undermined if government officials are removed and replaced with hardliners who do not
welcome Church efforts for peace. Priests, sisters and other personnel have been harassed. Some
of the programmes on our radio network have been removed. Churches have been burned down.
Less than two weeks ago, on 14 th February, security officers attempted to close down our Catholic
bookshop. They harassed our personnel and confiscated several books. The ecumenical church
leaders’ delegation which visited Pope Francis in Rome and Archbishop Justin Welby in London
has been trying to obtain a meeting with President Salva Kiir since December 2016, but has so far
been unsuccessful. We hear people saying that “the Church is against the government”.
We wish to inform all of you that the Church is not for or against anyone, neither the government
nor the opposition. We are FOR all good things – peace, justice, love, forgiveness, reconciliation,
dialogue, the rule of law, good governance – and we are AGAINST evil – violence, killing, rape,
torture, looting, corruption, arbitrary detention, tribalism, discrimination, oppression – regardless of
where they are and who is practising them. We are ready to dialogue with and between the
government and the opposition at any time.
The Way Forward
We issue this pastoral message to the people of South Sudan, but we copy it widely to others,
including the international community. We want the world to hear the true situation in which our
people find themselves.
The Holy Father Pope Francis yesterday, 22 nd February 2016, made an appeal for South Sudan
from the Vatican. We have instructed our Caritas South Sudan and requested our Caritas
Internationalis partners to act urgently to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, and we
call on the rest of the international community to do the same.
Those who have the ability to make changes for the good of our people have not taken heed of our
previous pastoral messages. This time we intend to follow up more proactively. In partnership with
other churches through the Action Plan for Peace (APP) of our South Sudan Council of Churches
(SSCC), we intend to meet face to face not only with the President but with the vice presidents,
ministers, members of parliament, opposition leaders and politicians, military officers from all sides,
and anyone else who we believe has the power to change our country for the better. We intend to
meet with them not once, but again and again, for as long as is necessary, with the message that
we need to see action, not just dialogue for the sake of dialogue. “In a certain city there was a
judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept
coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later
he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this
widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually
coming.’” (Luke 18:2-5) Like that widow, we will come continually to bother those who are
responsible in our country.
Again with our partner churches in SSCC, and with our church partners in neigbouring countries
such as Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan, we intend to bring the narrative of our people on the
ground to the governments of those countries, so that they can understand our situation and make
good choices to improve it, both bilaterally and through multilateral bodies such as IGAD and AU.
Our own special contribution will include bringing in the Catholic Church in those countries,
regional Catholic bodies such as AMECEA, and the Vatican at the global level. When we meet the
leaders of each country, we will be accompanied by the cardinals and bishops of that country.
We reiterate our support for the SSCC Action Plan for Peace (APP) and its three pillars of
Advocacy, Neutral Forum dialogues and Reconciliation. It was always intended that the APP
should be implemented by the member churches, not by the SSCC Secretariat alone, so we have
instructed our Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, at both national and diocesan level, to
begin a dialogue with SSCC on how we can contribute to the work on the ground.
We believe that “technical” programmes are not enough. Hence we have instructed our Pastoral
Comission to mobilise a national spiritual approach, as we did for the Referendum.
We ask forgiveness for anything we might have done to alienate any individual or party, and we
assure you of our love and prayers.
You are the Church; we are the Pastors. We call upon you to remain spiritually strong, and to
exercise restraint, tolerance, forgiveness and love. Work for justice and peace; reject violence and
revenge. We are with you. We have heard what God is saying to us through you and through your
sufferings on the ground, and by including it in our public pastoral letter to you, we are making it
accessible to the world. We will continue to be “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness”. We
wish to give you hope that you are not abandoned and that we are working to resolve the situation
at many different levels.
Finally, with great joy, we wish to inform you that the Holy Father Pope Francis hopes to visit South
Sudan later this year. The Holy Father is deeply concerned about the sufferings of the people of
South Sudan. You are already in his prayers, but his coming here would be a concrete symbol of
his fatherly concern and his solidarity with your suffering. It would draw the attention of the world to
the situation here. We call upon you to begin a programme of prayer for this visit to go ahead. Let
us use the coming months fruitfully to begin the transformation of our nation.
May God bless you.