Before beginning their ecumenical pilgrimage of peace to South Sudan, Pope Francis and the leaders of the Anglican Communion and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland asked Christians around the globe to accompany them with prayers.
Pope Francis is scheduled to fly first to Congo for a visit Jan. 31-Feb. 3 before meeting up in Juba, South Sudan, with Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and the Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the Church of Scotland. About 60% of South Sudan's population is Christian, and the leaders' three denominations are the largest in the country.
After reciting the Angelus with visitors in St. Peter's Square Jan. 29, Pope Francis spoke about the trip.
Congo and South Sudan, he said, "situated in the center of the great African continent, have suffered greatly from lengthy conflicts."
"The Democratic Republic of the Congo, especially in the east of the country, suffers from armed clashes and exploitation," particularly because of the minerals found there, he said. "South Sudan, wracked by years of war, longs for an end to the constant violence that forces many people to be displaced and to live in conditions of great hardship."
Talking about traveling with Archbishop Welby and Rev. Greenshields, the pope said that "together, as brothers, we will make an ecumenical pilgrimage of peace, to entreat God and men to bring an end to the hostilities and for reconciliation."
"I ask everyone, please, to accompany this journey with their prayers," the pope said.
The Presbyterian leader used Twitter, asking "Please keep the people of #SouthSudan in your prayers. Myself @Pontifex & @JustinWelby are making this pilgrimage of peace as servants to stand in solidarity with the people of South Sudan and amplify their cries as they continue to suffer from conflict, flooding and famine."
Leaders of the South Sudanese Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian communities traveled to the Vatican and to England in late 2016 to invite the three leaders to visit, hoping such a trip would convince the heads of opposing militias and political parties to work together for peace.
In a statement released Jan. 29, Archbishop Welby said, "We have prayed for many years for this visit -- and we now look forward to being in Juba together in only a few days' time."
The church leaders, he said, will go "as servants -- to listen to and amplify the cries of the South Sudanese people, who have suffered so much and continue to suffer because of conflict, devastating flooding, widespread famine and much more."
"Over the past three years and even since July, violence has intensified in many parts of the country," he said. The church leaders "hope to review and renew the commitments made by South Sudanese leadership" when the Vatican hosted a spiritual retreat for them at the Vatican in 2019.
"This will be a historic visit," the archbishop wrote. "After centuries of division, leaders of three different parts of the church are coming together in an unprecedented way, and in so doing are seeking to be part of answering another prayer -- Jesus' prayer -- that his followers might be one."
The archbishop's office also released a statement from his wife, Caroline Welby, who has made repeated trips to South Sudan particularly to support the country's women.
"They have borne the grief of war and carry the responsibility to provide for their families," she said. "Many of them live with the trauma of displacement in their own country, refugees in other countries, sexual violence and the daily fear of mistreatment in their own homes and communities."