Pope Francis pleaded with South Sudanese government officials and opposition leaders Thursday to encourage the continuation of their fragile peace by getting on his hands and knees in a dramatic gesture and kissing their shoes.
“I’m asking you with my heart,” the pope said to the President Salva Kiir, and opposition leader Riek Machar, during a spiritual retreat at the Vatican in Rome. “Stay in peace.”
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 with the backing of many western nations, but a civil war erupted two years later and killed at least 400,000 and displaced millions. The conflict began as a feud between forces loyal to Kiir and Machar, the New York Times reported.
Disease, hunger and human rights abuses by both sides led to the exodus of millions into neighboring countries. The pope’s gesture came hours after the military in neighboring Sudan ousted President Omar al-Bashir after 30 years of authoritarian rule, according to the paper.
The pope encouraged the two leaders to find common ground before stunning both men by kneeling to kiss their shoes.
“I urge you, then, to seek what unites you, beginning with the fact that you belong to one and the same people, and to overcome all that divides you,” he said. “People are wearied, exhausted by past conflicts: Remember that with war, all is lost!”