AFRICA/SOUTH SUDAN - A Church that grows, but with the scourge of tribalism that persists

Saturday, 4 February 2023 pope francis   local churches   tribalism  

Juba (Agenzia Fides) - There are 64 ethnic groups that make up the complex social mosaic of South Sudan. Coexistence not always easy between the different populations to the point that it ended up fueling the civil war that broke out in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused Vice President Riek Machar of a coup attempt. The conflict that broke out immediately took on an ethnic dimension, with Kiir belonging to the country's largest ethnic group, the Dinka, and Machar, on the other hand, to the second numerically largest ethnic group, the Nuer.
The scourge of tribalism had been described as "the country's greatest enemy" by the Archbishop of Juba, Msgr. Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla, who also stressed that "we cannot build our nation or the Church on tribalism: if we build them on tribalism we will say that there is no Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation and we will fall because it is something that is dividing us" (see Fides, 28/9/2022).
For this reason, the appeal of Pope Francis during the meeting with members of the South Sudanese clergy in Juba Cathedral ("We are not tribal chiefs, but compassionate and merciful pastors") can thus also be interpreted as an invitation to overcome the "virus" of tribalism that it is also insinuated in the Church.
A Church that has benefited from the religious freedom granted by the Constitution since the formation of the State in 2011.
In a note sent to Fides, Sister Elena Balatti, a Comboni missionary in Malakal, declared: "Since then, the number of Christians in South Sudan, including Catholics, has not stopped increasing. Baptisms number in the thousands every year in the dioceses".
Religious freedom has allowed churches to profess their faith and preach, but it has also led to the proliferation of indigenous churches, or sects, now in the hundreds in the country.
"However, perhaps the most important pastoral question is the depth of evangelization," says the missionary. "The number of baptized continues to grow and the churches are packed on Sundays, but in important practical choices most Catholics follow traditional practices, especially with regard to the family. Marriages celebrated in church are very few, and traditional marriage and polygamy prevail".
Sister Elena concludes by mentioning that "in addition to the pastoral challenges, the Catholic Church, along with the other members of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in South Sudan, has had to deal with the great instability that has characterized the life of the new nation, marked from 2013 to 2018 by civil war. Despite the 2018 peace agreement, peace and stability are still a long way off and low-intensity conflicts, with occasional very violent episodes, continue. People in general, not just Catholics, are hoping that Pope Francis' ecumenical visit will give a boost to peace", concludes the missionary. (L.M.) (Agenzia Fides, 4/2/2023)