Vatican Pulls Pope Francis Visit to South Sudan Amid Security Concerns and Ethnic Tensions

Pope Francis Fatima
Pope Francis celebrates a centenary mass marking the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Fatima's Sanctuary, central Portugal, on May 13. The pope will not travel to South Sudan in 2017, the Vatican has confirmed. TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty

Pope Francis will not visit war-torn South Sudan in 2017, the Vatican confirmed Tuesday, citing security and logistical barriers to a proposed trip by the pontiff to one of the world's most fragile countries.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the trip, which would have seen Francis travel with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was still being considered but "not for this year," the Catholic Herald reported.

Christian leaders from Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian churches in South Sudan visited the pope at the Vatican in October 2016, urging him to visit their country. In February, the pope said he hoped to visit the country. "We are looking at whether it is possible, or if the situation there is too dangerous," said Francis, according to Catholic news site Crux. "But we have to do it, because they—the three [Christian communities in South Sudan]—together they desire peace, and they are working together for peace."

But the pope's aspirations have been dashed by the ongoing conflict and ethnic tensions in the world's youngest country. South Sudan only came into existence following a 2011 independence referendum, which saw it split from northern neighbor Sudan. But two years later, the country was plunged into civil war in December 2013. Despite the warring factions signing a peace agreement in 2015, the conflict has continued unabated, killing thousands and displacing more than 3 million South Sudanese. It has also led to famine in parts of the country, which has left 100,000 people on the brink of starvation.

The violence has an ethnic dimension, pitting supporters of President Salva Kiir—who hails from the majority Dinka ethnic group—against backers of former vice-president Riek Machar, a Nuer. The United Nations has said that government soldiers may be guilty of war crimes, while both sides have allegedly been involved in horrific abuses, including burning civilians alive and forced cannibalism.

One reason the pope's trip was canceled was because an advance team sent by the Vatican to South Sudan was unable to obtain assurances that both Dinkas and Nuers would be able to attend a mass of reconciliation to be held by Francis, a church source told Reuters.

Various alternatives were proposed, including a stopover visit for just a few hours en route to another African country, or a visit confined to the airport in the capital Juba, but these were dismissed, according to the Catholic Herald. Francis gave up the trip "reluctantly" since the "information coming to his desk left him with few alternatives," Italian daily Il Messaggero reported.

The pope has not shied away from visiting dangerous places before. In 2015, Francis undertook a three-legged African tour, including a visit to Central African Republic, which has witnessed violence between nominally Christian and Muslim militias since 2013.