Vatican retreat as peace deal falters

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The Vatican brought together South Sudanese leaders for 24 hours of prayer and preaching in a last ditch attempt to heal divisions a month before the war-ravaged nation is due to set up a unity government.

The retreat, which a Vatican statement termed “both ecumenical and diplomatic”, ends on Thursday with an address to leaders by Pope Francis, who has expressed a desire to visit South Sudan.

The leaders are all Christians, including President Salva Kiir, former deputy turned rebel leader Riek Machar and three other vice presidents.

Machar’s presence was in doubt with aides saying Sudan, a guarantor to the September peace deal, restricted his movements in Khartoum.

Sudan, predominantly Muslim and South Sudan, predominately Christian, fought for decades before the south became independent in 2011.

Oil-rich South Sudan plunged into civil war two years later after Kiir, a Dinka, fired Machar, a Nuer, from the vice presidency.

Brutal fighting broke out, characterised by extreme sexual violence, the use of child soldiers and attacks on civilians along ethnic fault-lines. About 400,000 people died and more than a third of the country’s 12 million people were uprooted, sparking Africa’s worst refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Machar landed in Rome an hour before the retreat was to start in the Vatican guest house. The leaders will stay there and eat together during the retreat.

Also attending are the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican communion; members of the South Sudan Council of Churches and other African Catholic and Presbyterian church leaders.

Welby proposed the retreat to the pope.

A Vatican statement said the retreat would offer leaders “a propitious occasion for reflection and prayer, as well as an occasion for encounter and reconciliation”. An African Jesuit, Father Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, will preach.

Both sides signed a power-sharing deal in September calling on rival factions to assemble, screen and train their respective forces to create a national army before formation of a unity government.

That has not happened. Instead, government dismissed UN investigations into war crimes and gang rape and asked for $285 million in funding to implement the deal.

Last month, Brussels-based think-tank the International Crisis Group warned the deal risks total collapse before May 12, when power sharing is due to start.