BY Peter Diamond | April 19 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

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Former Church of Scotland moderator stunned by Pope’s peace plea at historic first gathering

Pope Francis 'shocked the world' last week when he kissed the feet of South Sudan’s political leaders asking for peace, according to a Scottish minister who played a vital role in the peace retreat last week.

Former moderator of the Church of Scotland Rev John Chalmers said the room was ‘stunned’ and people were ‘visibly tearful’ when the Pope spontaneously pleaded for peace in the war-torn country of Africa.

The Presbyterian who met Pope Francis in 2015 said the occasion was highly significant and extraordinary as it was the first time that the Catholic, Anglican and Protestant churches have worked so closely for peace in 500 years.

An ecumenical spiritual retreat led by Pope Francis, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Rev John Chalmers was organised in an effort to support South Sudan’s fragile peace deal.

 

Political leaders

The political leaders present at the retreat included South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit and opposition leader Vice President Riek Machar.

The two are expected to form a national unity government under a fragile peace deal designed to end six years of civil war in the world’s newest country.

Pope Francis broke off from his prepared remarks to make a personal plea to Sudan’s political leaders, saying, ‘To the three of you who have signed the peace agreement, I ask you as a brother: stay in peace.’

 

Moving forward

Pope Francis said: “I am asking you with my heart. Let us go forward. There will be many problems but they will not overcome us. Go ahead, go forward, and resolve the problems. You have begun a process. May it end well.”

He said he was asking from his heart with his deepest sentiments, before walking towards the leaders and kneeling to kiss their feet (above right).

 

Historical moment

Rev Chalmers this week told the SCO he knew he was witnessing something ‘rare.’

He said: “It was a moment that took the whole room by surprise and there were visible tears amongst many people who were moved by the gesture including some of the political leaders.

“Archbishop Justin Welby and I glanced at each other and knew we were witnessing something rare and significant.

“The Pope isn’t in the habit of kissing the feet of political leaders. It was a breath-taking moment.”

Following the gesture each Sudanese leader was given a Bible signed by the Pope, Archbishop Welby and Rev Chalmers with the inscription “Seek that which unites. Overcome that which divides.”

 

Eye-to-eye

Rev Chalmers, who is based in Dunfermline, said there ‘was the potential for real difficulty if opposing sides could not agree or see eye-to-eye and refused to come together.’

He added that the meeting was ‘a powerful message that the leaders of the political spectrums were fed up of war and wanted to acknowledge their failings over 48 hours together in the Vatican.’

“At the start of the retreat both camps were very reserved but now both are committed to work together, at least in the short term, as it remains a very difficult situation for them,” he said.

“They have to go back to South Sudan and speak to their rebel leaders and forces to put down their weapons, which won’t be easy, but we have great hope.

“I have to say it was a really extraordinary event and a one off situation not just because it was a peace retreat at the Vatican but also because it was the first time in about 500 years that the leaders of those three different denominations have led worship and worked together.”

 

A miracle

Archbishop Welby described the retreat as a ‘miracle.’

Scotland’s international aid agency SCIAF has welcomed the peace retreat between the political leaders of South Sudan, where they have eight projects.

Lorraine Currie, director of integral human development at SCIAF, said: “This is a hugely significant moment in the journey towards lasting peace in South Sudan.

“The country needs stability from its political leaders after years of civil war, which has left hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions displaced.

“At SCIAF we have seen the effects of this conflict first-hand. Violence, disease and famine have left people living in fear.

“We’ve been working in South Sudan for many years providing emergency food, medicine and shelter, and promoting reconciliation in communities.

“I hope this rare intervention by Pope Francis will encourage politicians to work together to ensure the people of South Sudan can finally live in peace.”

 

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