(Vatican Radio) The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, on Wednesday concluded a visit to East Africa which could help pave the way for a joint peace mission to South Sudan with Pope Francis.
The archbishop has spent five days in Uganda and Sudan, meeting with both religious and government leaders. In Khartoum he preached at a service marking the inauguration of the 39th province of the Anglican Communion. The new independent province of Sudan marks the culmination of a process that began after South Sudan, where the majority of Christians in the region are located, gained independence from its northern neighbour in 2011.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis said he hoped to go on a joint visit to South Sudan with Archbishop Welby, but the planned trip was postponed because of an upsurge in the civil war that erupted in 2013.
Among those accompanying the Anglican leader on this week’s journey was Bishop Nick Baines of the northern English diocese of Leeds. Philippa Hitchen asked him about the visit and about the chances of a joint peace mission by the Catholic and Anglican leaders to war-torn South Sudan…
Bishop Baines notes that after the independence of South Sudan, an internal province was created and that has now become the autonomous province of Sudan, under the leadership of Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo.
He says there are five dioceses in the new province, with the majority of Christians in Khartoum. The four other dioceses have a lot of South Sudanese refugees, especially Kadugli in the contended zone around the Nuba mountains, where the bishops travelled under heavy security on Saturday.
Robust conversations on religious freedom
Bishop Baines speaks of their meetings with Sudan’s president, foreign minister, governor of Khartoum State and minister for religion, describing their talks as “robust conversations” , in which they were able to “make our case on behalf of Christians”. He says they obtained commitments from the government officials, but adds that “this is tied up with wider political issues […] of how they work towards the lifting of U.S. sanctions” which is due to take place on October 12th.
The bishops discussed religious freedom and in particular the demolition of some Christian churches. Bishops Baines says the government claims mosques are also being demolished if they don’t have the right permits, while the bishops called for a policy “generous pragmatism”.
In Sudan, Bishop Baines says, Christians and Muslims live alongside each other, including in mixed marriages. He notes there were a number of government ministers attending and speaking at the inauguration in Khartoum cathedral on Sunday.
Regarding the possibility of a joint visit to South Sudan with Pope Francis, Bishop Baines says “politically, there has to be a carrot and a there has to be stick”. The commitment of the two leaders, “which is still on the table, is a carrot that comes with a stick”, that of pressuring the government of South Sudan “to get its act together”.
Step towards joint peace mission
There are signs, he says, that “this might be beginning”, adding that “clearly a joint visit by the pope and the archbishop of Canterbury would be very powerful”. The government of Sudan, he adds, is working hard for a solution, so this week’s visit is “certainly a step along the way”.
Speaking of the “strong ecumenical cooperation” in the region, Bishop Baines said he also met with papal nuncio, Archbishop Hubertus van Megen. He says there is also ecumenical commitment with the Copts, and also “a common task” in serving the refugees “in the name of Christ”.