South Sudan bishop: ‘Never lose hope’ in fight for peace

The Bishop of Rumbek discusses the Pope’s recent Pilgrimage of Peace to South Sudan, and urges Catholics to “have the courage to dialogue!”

By Joseph Tulloch and John Baptist Tumusiime

Pope Francis has just returned from his ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace to South Sudan, together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. 

Vatican News’s John Baptist Tumusiime discussed the Pontiff’s visit with Bishop Christian Carlassare, who heads the country’s Diocese of Rumbek.

Bishop Carlassare, an Italian, has lived in South Sudan since 2005. In the interview, he discussed the importance of collaboration between the country’s various churches, the necessity of education for young people, and the role of the international arms trade in escalating the situation.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for reasons of style.

Why did the Pope go to South Sudan?

The country is the youngest nation in the world, gaining independence in 2011.

It then broke into a conflict that was so bad, and so disturbing, and so frustrating for the people. But they found in the Pope a person that was always mentioning South Sudan, praying for South Sudan, and they felt that besides the international community and the humanitarian help actually the greatest support in their suffering was the prayer of this holy man, the Holy Father, Pope Francis, and the presence of the Church among them.

And so when the Pope invited the leaders to Rome for that retreat, and then there was also that gesture of kissing the feet, and I think everybody was astonished and really loved the humility of Pope Francis, who, in a very simple way, was saying to their leaders: please use your ministry or your authority as a service, and you are at the service of the citizens.

Of course, I think his coming is like giving to the people what is theirs. Firstly, to give attention to the institutions of South Sudan to call them for peace. But at the same time, the Pope came to see the people that are those that carry the wounds of this terrible situation and the conflict in South Sudan.

I think people would like to thank him. Gathering together with him was like saying, you are our father, and we feel that you are embracing us, and we are standing with you. At the same time, the Pope and the prayer of the Holy Father is a great blessing for the people in a time of uncertainty, frustration, encouraging them that peace is possible. There is always a way to peace. We have only to walk on that way, all together.

Many people have been also impressed by the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. What role have the various churches played in the peace process of this country?

It is really impressive that there is this visit together of these leaders and it is, I will say providential. It is a great gift.

In the country there is a common commitment of all the churches, through the South Sudan Council of Churches, and there is communion not only among the Protestant churches, but the Catholic Church has also played a very great role.

They have been dialoguing with the institutions, with the different communities, especially where there were conflicts, and even with some militias. Let us say that they have been promoting dialogue wherever there were conflict or tensions, calming down the situation and reminding all these stakeholders of the reality and the suffering of the people.

Therefore, the purpose of this common ecumenical visit was to acknowledge that when we look at Jesus and we preach the Gospel, we actually are all Christians, and find ourselves on the same path. We find that we are all children of the same Father, we are all Christians, and we can work together.

When I saw the three church leaders together, what came to my mind was: this is a clear message that religion is not there to divide. Religion is there to unite.

I believe so. In his magisterium, the Pope has often said that any religion that would promote violence is actually not a true religion. I really believe that religion will help humanity. It will help us to acknowledge all the differences that are among us as a great wealth, a richness that God gave us.

And this diversity is not division, but can be lived in unity.

I saw you with the students from your diocese who had made a pilgrimage to Juba to see the Pope. You were so free with them, and they were so free with you. You must be very involved with youth ministry in your diocese?

Yes, I like to be with them, and I feel that people really love to have a shepherd that is part of the community.

Of course, in our church we have to invest very much in youth ministry, as our assemblies are mostly formed by the youth. I would say that 80% of our communities.

The youth are those people that have suffered most during this conflict. I really believe that the poorest people are not those that are without resources but those that are not able to enjoy the resources they have.

Many youth in this country have been manipulated for reasons of power or different kind of interest, and so I think that many us do come to the church because they see that the church is a house of hope, that we give them a vision and trust them. And so as a church, we have really to invest on the ministry of their youth.

What kind of projects have you invested in already?

Our work in the diocese is built on various pillars.

The first pillar is evangelisation. We put the youth at the centre in the sense that they need the catechetical formation and activities to be involved in the life of the community.

And we have youth that are, I would say, quite well-formed and quite available to our Christian community. They are very lively.

The second pillar is education, in a country where only 20% of children have access to a primary school, maybe only 6% have access to a secondary school. It is really vital to give the chance to as many youth as we can, that they can get an education that is really the tool for them of liberation, liberation from any manipulation, liberation from what prevents them from really fulfilling their life.

There is violence is various areas of the country – what’s it like in your diocese?

Conflict in South Sudan is very complicated. From 2013 to 2019 there was a very political conflict, which of course had some ethnic causes, but this did not affect our diocese.

What really affected us was that in time of conflict, a flood of weapons arrived in the country, and these weapons were distributed to different communities so that they could keep security. But of course, when there are weapons, there is no security. We cannot keep security, because we have weapons.

And actually, we found that there was so much insecurity in our territory because one clan was against the other because of resources, because of disputes about where to take the cows to graze, or access to water, or some areas where there were some resources like wood, this kind of resources.

At the moment, we have been blessed by a very strong governor who was put there after the attack where I was a victim. He was able to unify the population, to understand that violence and insecurity will not be allowed to evolve.

Therefore, since last year, we have had tranquility within the territory of the diocese.

Still, there are some conflicts in some remote areas because of cows, because of other traditional reasons. But people, they know how to solve those problems. The big problems of South Sudan are those conflicts that are man-made, access to power and resources. And those conflicts are very difficult. It’s very hard for the local culture to be able to solve them because they have roots somewhere else.

But traditionally, people know how to solve the traditional conflict connected to cows, cattle resources, the resources of the land, and the relationship between clans.

What is your message, as one of the leaders of the Catholic Church in this country, to the faithful, in view of Pope Francis’ recent visit?

I will say, first of all, never lose hope. Never lose hope because God is there. And we are not alone. We are not closed in in our country with our own problems. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and there is a way when we are able to bind ourselves together.

Have the courage to dialogue, rather than being aggressive towards others. Gain from prayer and from the sacraments and the blessing that we have received from this visit, and take that optimism, that faith, and use it to overcome obstacles, because there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome.