The Pontiff got on his hands and knees before the leaders of South Sudan’s government and its opposition, kissing their shoes and imploring the two men to maintain the tenuous peace that exists between them.
“I’m asking you with my heart,” the Pope said to the South Sudan president, Salva Kiir, and the opposition leader, Riek Machar, clutching his hands in front of his chest.
“Stay in peace,” Francis added.
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.
In 2011, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan; by December 2013, the country had devolved into a civil war that killed at least 400,000 people and displaced millions.
Last September, Kiir and his former vice president turned rebel leader, Mr. Machar, signed a peace agreement in Ethiopia.
On Thursday, the two men went to the Vatican for an exceptional two-day ecumenical retreat inside the pope’s residence.
“There will be fights among you, but let these be inside the office,” Francis said, staring the leaders and other South Sudanese officials in the eye and urging them to respect their recent armistice and commit to forming a unity government next month.
“But in front of the people, hold hands.”
This way, the pope said, they can “become fathers of the nation.”
Other peace agreements between the South Sudanese leaders have failed.
The fate of this one, experts say, is connected to what happens in Sudan now that Bashir has been deposed.
Bashir was, along with Uganda’s president, a guarantor of the deal. His departure is yet another complication for a war-torn country struggling to maintain peace.