South Sudan leaders to head to Vatican next week for ‘spiritual retreat’

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The leaders of South Sudan are to visit the Vatican next week, a spokesman said Wednesday.

Media reports said arch-rivals President Salva Kiir and rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar were expected to be at the Vatican on April 9 and 10.

“I can affirm that scheduled next week in the Vatican is a spiritual retreat for the leaders of South Sudan,” Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said.

South Sudan was born in a blaze of optimism in 2011 after it gained independence from Sudan.

But rivalry between Kiir and Machar unleashed a civil war in 2013 characterized by brutal violence, rape and UN warnings about ethnic cleansing.

More than 380,000 people have died and four million people have fled their homes.

In 2015, a peace deal brought Machar back as vice president, but it fell apart the following year and he fled the country.

Machar is planning to return next month under a peace agreement signed in Addis Ababa last September, but the process has been overshadowed by fears of insecurity and lack of preparation.

Pope Francis has repeatedly voiced concern for South Sudan.

He granted an audience to Kiir last month and afterwards said he hoped to visit the country to “encourage the peace process.”

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