By Philip Pullella and Estelle Shirbon
JUBA -Tens of thousands of people sang, drummed and ululated as Pope Francis arrived in South Sudan on Friday for an unprecedented joint “pilgrimage of peace” with his Anglican and Scottish Presbyterian counterparts.
The young African country broke away from Sudan to become independent in 2011 after decades of conflict, but civil war erupted in 2013. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, violence and hunger still plague the country.
On the eve of the pope’s arrival, 27 people were killed in Central Equatoria state, where the country’s capital Juba is located, in tit-for-tat violence between cattle herders and a local militia.
In a first, the pope will be accompanied during his time there by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the global Anglican Communion, and by Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Together, the three leaders represent the main religious traditions active in South Sudan, a predominantly Christian nation.
Welby and Greenshields were on the tarmac at Juba airport along with South Sudanese dignitaries to welcome the pope as his plane arrived from Democratic Republic of Congo.
The 86-year-old pontiff was lowered from the plane in a lift before sitting in a wheelchair to go along the red carpet into the terminal.
Huge crowds lined his motorcade’s route into town, with many waving the flags of South Sudan, the United Kingdom, Scotland and the Vatican.
The pope travelled along the route in a small white Fiat car, waving through the window, surrounded by larger cars and security men. The crowds cheered wildly and jumped up and down as he went past.
The pope, leader of the world’s 1.4 billion Roman Catholics, had wanted to visit South Sudan for years but each time planning for a trip began it had to be postponed because of instability on the ground.
In one of the most remarkable gestures of his papacy, Francis knelt to kiss the feet of South Sudan’s previously warring leaders during a meeting at the Vatican in April 2019, urging them not to return to civil war.
Earlier on Friday, Welby said he was horrified by the latest killings on the day before the pilgrimage.
“It is a story too often heard across South Sudan. I again appeal for a different way: for South Sudan to come together for a just peace,” he said on Twitter.
The pope was expected to give a speech later at a meeting with authorities, diplomats and representatives of civil society.
On Saturday, the three Christian leaders will meet a group of internally displaced people and hear their stories. On Sunday, the pope will celebrate Mass before flying back to Rome.
The pope, on his third visit to sub-Saharan Africa, earlier wrapped up an emotional visit to Democratic Republic of Congo.
He was given a rapturous welcome by huge crowds in the Congolese capital Kinshasa but also confronted the reality of war, poverty and hunger in the giant central African nation.