In a dramatic gesture, Pope Francis begged rival parties of South Sudan to refrain from breaking into civil war after he knelt to kiss the feet of the Sudanese leaders attending an unprecedented retreat at the Vatican, on Thursday.
Pope Francis asked President Salva Kiir, his former deputy turned rebel leader Riek Machar, and three other vice presidents to respect the cease-fire in order to form a unity government next month.
"I am asking you as a brother to stay in peace. I am asking you with my heart, let us go forward. There will be many problems, but they will not overcome us. Resolve your problems," Francis said in spontaneous remarks.
The pope, 82, who suffers from chronic leg pain, left the leaders in shock after seeking aides’ help to kneel with difficulty to kiss the shoes of the two main opposing leaders and several other people in the room.
His appeal was made even more pressing as anxiety grew in South Sudan that Thursday’s ousting of Sudan’s president Omar Bashir might put at risk the fragile peace deal that ended South Sudan's brutal five-year civil war.
The Vatican brought together South Sudanese leaders for 24 hours of prayer and preaching inside the pope's residence in an attempt to heal bitter divisions before the country sets up a unity government.
"There will be struggles, disagreements among you. But keep them within you, inside the office, so to speak," Francis said in Italian as an aide translated into English. "But in front of the people, hold hands united. So, as simple citizens, you will become fathers of the nation."
Sudan, which is predominantly Muslim, and the mainly Christian south fought for decades before South Sudan became independent in 2011. South Sudan plunged into civil war two years later after Kiir, a Dinka, fired Machar, of the Nuer ethnic group, from the vice presidency.