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One bishop’s quest to bring peace to South Sudan

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South Sudanese Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala watched the video in amazement as 82-year-old Pope Francis went down on his hands and knees to kiss the feet of the warring leaders of South Sudan. The African politicians traveled to the Vatican for a two-day retreat, and at its conclusion, were begged by the pope to keep the peace. 

South Sudan, a predominantly Christian county, gained its independence from the Muslim-majority north in 2011. But President Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group, and Vice President Riek Machar, a member of the Nuer, have clashed since the country’s inception. Some 300,000 people have died in the civil war and millions have been displaced.  

The atrocities committed during the war have made reconciliation difficult among leaders and the people, said Bishop Kussala, who leads the southern Diocese of Tombura-Yambio. Many Catholics told him they couldn’t understand how the pope could kiss the feet of men who had brought so much death to the country. But Bishop Kussala knows Pope Francis was following Christ’s example.  

“This gesture of the Holy Father means the people of South Sudan have got to forgive one another, to kiss the feet of each other. These leaders have got to kiss the feet of their people,” said Bishop Kussala. “For us, it was a moment of grace for South Sudan.”

The war-torn central African country is in need of a lot of grace. Years of fighting have devasted the area. “People have been killed, displaced, property has been lost, psychologically we are all traumatized and so many young people have lost direction,” the bishop said. “It's a huge suffering for this young nation.”

Bishop Kussala was impacted personally by conflict very early in life. As a baby, his mother was killed when their village was attacked and destroyed. He lived in a refugee camp for many years with his grandmother, who inspired him with her faith. “She liked to say, ‘Everyday, please do something good that can make people smile. If people are smiling, God is smiling,’ ” he said.

As a priest, he served Sudanese refugees in the Central African Republic. He became a bishop in 2008 and currently is serving as president of the Sudanese and South Sudanese bishops’ conference. Because of the state of the country, much of the work of the bishops is devoted to providing for the many needs of their people and keeping the peace.

Sometimes, promoting peace means negotiating at gunpoint. On one dire occasion, Bishop Kussala and other clerics ventured into a forest to convince the 10,000 armed young rebels living there to put down their weapons. “The government wanted to go and fight them, and I went to the president to ask him, ‘Your excellency, you may have the best guns you can throw into those forests, but all those young people will die, is that a victory?’ And he said, ‘No, bishop, if you can (mediate), that would be a great help,’ ” said Bishop Kussala. 

But there was great distrust between both sides. “Some people in the government said, ‘The bishop and his team are actually part of the rebels, why are none of them arrested, why are none of them killed?’ And then we go to the bush, and those boys also did not trust us. ‘Oh, maybe you’re coming to see our hideout to inform the government to come and attack us,’ ” he said.

“I remember more than three times I was made to sit down at gunpoint, but I believed it was necessary to do it for the sake of peace in this area,” he said. “At the end of the day, we managed to convince those young people to come out of the bush with their guns and surrender.”

Though his area is now relatively stable, the people are still hungry, largely illiterate and in need of medical care. One organization he and the local church partners with is the Washington-based Sudan Relief Fund, which aids refugees, provides food and clean water, supports schools and the education of seminarians.

With their support, Bishop Kussala recently traveled around the United States to advocate for South Sudan. He encourages policymakers to help South Sudan build a stable government and his fellow Catholics to pray for his people. “Don’t give up on South Sudan. We are struggling to put the country in place,” he said. “In the church, we remain to ring the bell of hope.” 

Bishop Kussala knows his faith has empowered him during these trying times. “If I was not a believer, I would probably run away. My faith has helped me to be patient, to be able to discern things, to forget myself and help others, and to concentrate on things that matter for the people,” he said. “Faith tells you there's nothing to fear because God is present. So just get out there.”

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019

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