As Vatican readies to recognise South Sudan, a look back at tense 1993 papal visit

July 8, 2011

(A man holds up South Sudan's new flag as South Sudanese children rehearse their dance routine, to be performed at half time during South Sudan's national soccer team's match with Kenya as part of the independence day celebrations, in Juba July 7, 2011/Paul Banks)

As predominantly Christian and animist South Sudan stands on the threshold of independence, one man who helped bring world attention to the suffering of believers there is no longer here to savour the day.

On Feb. 10, 1993, Pope John Paul made a tense visit to Khartoum and pulled no punches in a highly charged meeting with the country’s president, General Omar Hassan Ahmed al Bashir. In his meeting,  the outspoken pope left diplomacy at the door, as was often his custom when he wanted to speak from the heart. He bluntly compared the suffering of Sudan’s Catholics to the crucifixion of Christ and told the Islamic government that only guaranteeing the rights of  Christians and other minorities would bring peace.

The year before, the Vatican had made a formal public protest about the treatment of the Church in the south, where  civil war had raged between government forces and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Front (SPLA). The Vatican had accused the government of discrimination in education, harassment of priests and closing Catholic organisations since promulgating Islamic law (sharia) in 1991.

The atmosphere was so tense between the Vatican delegation and the Sudanese officials during the one-day stop in Khartoum in 1993 that more than a few reporters accompanying the pope feared that something could happen. At a papal mass on a dusty field outside the capital, soldiers in uniform and well as men in plainclothes who were apparently members of militias waved machine guns in the air right in front of the altar. It was one of the tensest moments in my more that  20 years of travels with the late pope.

Nearly two decades on, the Vatican is now opening its arms to South Sudan and asking the international community to do the same. In a statement on Friday, the eve of South Sudan’s independence, the Vatican said it would give “due consideration” to a request by the South Sudan to establish diplomatic relations. That seemed to be thinly veiled diplomatese (the kind Pope John Paul would probably have brushed aside) whose real meaning was ”how soon can we do a deal?”

Pope Benedict is sending a high-level delegation to Juba, the southern capital,  for the ceremonies of the founding of the new state. It includes Cardinal John Njue, archbishop of Nairobi, and the Vatican’s nuncio in Khartoum, Archbishop Leo Boccardi.

The Vatican asked the international community to help both Sudan and South Sudan “carry out a frank, peaceful and constructive dialogue”.

That will be easier said than done. A U.N. report issued on Thursday said more than 2,300 south Sudanese have died in tribal and rebel violence this year,  in an ominous reminder of the insecurity of the region on the even of independence.    Across the south violence has forced more than 270,000 people to flee, including 100,000 who escaped fighting in the disputed Abyei region — a north/south flash point on their ill-defined border, according to the figures. More than 300,000 have also returned voluntarily to the south since October last year, heaping pressure on the government and aid agencies.

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