File photo of a South Sudanese ecumenical prayer service for Pope Francis' health and visit (South Sudan Catholic Bishops Conference)

An overview of the Catholic Church in South Sudan

As Pope Francis prepares to embark on his Apostolic Journey to two African nations, we offer an overview of the Catholic Church in South Sudan.

By Lisa Zengarini/Vatican News

As Pope Francis prepares to embark on his Apostolic Journey to two African nations, we offer an overview of the Catholic Church in South Sudan.

By Lisa Zengarini/Vaticn News

The history of Christianity in South Sudan is closely linked to that of Sudan, of which the young African nation was part until 9 July 2011.

The origins

Christianity was first brought to this territory by the Church of Byzantium in the sixth century. The local Church later passed to the Coptic Patriarchate of Alexandria. The end of the Christian Kingdom of Nubia, in the early fourteenth century, led to the almost total disappearance of Christianity, with only a few Franciscan communities remaining in the region.

It was reintroduced in late 19th century by Italian missionary St. Daniel Comboni (1831-1881), founder of the Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus and of the Congregation of the Pious Mothers of Nigrizia, also known as the Comboni Missionary Sisters,  who managed to re-establish the Church in Sudan and in particular in South Sudan where there are still operating today.

Their intensive missionary activity allowed Christianity to expand at an increased rate between 1901 and 1964, strengthening the national identity of the people of South Sudan, as distinct from the Arab and Muslim population of the North.

Their fierce opposition to Islamization and Arabization policies carried out by Khartoum after the independence of Sudan from Anglo-Egyptian rule, fueled the secessionist movement which led to the two civil wars that ravaged the country between 1955 -1972 and 1983-2005, and finally to the independence of South Sudan in 2011, after a referendum.

A Christian-majority nation

As of today, more than half of the South Sudanese population is believed to be Christian, with a predominance of Catholics, who represent about 52% of the population, followed by Anglicans, Presbyterians, and other Protestant denominations, while the Orthodox (Coptic, Ethiopian, and Greek-Orthodox) account for less than 1%. There is also a significant number of followers of traditional African religions (which, according to some sources, are, in fact, the majority).

Religious freedom

Since South Sudan’s independence, the local Church enjoys full religious freedom and has been able to reorganize itself and carry out its pastoral work with no restrictions. The South Sudanese Constitution explicitly recognizes freedom of worship and equality of religions, and South Sudan holds diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

Furthermore, on several occasions, local political leaders have expressed appreciation for the support given by the Christian Churches to peace and nation-building, praising their contribution to the human, social and civil development of South Sudanese society. However, over the years there have also been occasional frictions and attempts by authorities to stifle criticism from the Church. This happened in 2014 when the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) ordered the temporary closure of some Catholic radios accused of interfering in the country’s political affairs for commenting on the new civil war that erupted in 2013.

The Church’s commitment to peace and development in South Sudan

Peace has been a constant focus of the Church in South Sudan, since the time when the African nation was struggling for independence. The Catholic Church, and the Council of Churches of South Sudan (SSCC), of which it is a member, still collaborate to this day to promote dialogue, healing, and reconciliation amid ongoing political strife and ethnic conflicts.

Appeals and mediation

Over the past ten years bishops, missionaries, and other Christian leaders have launched countless appeals for a peaceful solution to the armed conflict, which began as a spat between the two rivals in the SPLA, President Salva Kiir (an ethnic Dinka) and his dismissed Vice President Riek Machar (an ethnic Nuer), but soon assumed an ethnic character, exposing South Sudan’s weak institutions and deep historical divisions among South Sudanese communities.

Those appeals include the message released in July 2017 by the President of the Bishops’ Conference (SCBC), Bishop Edward Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio, for the occasion of the sixth anniversary of independence.  The message called for a total cessation of the fighting, which had resumed in July 2016 after the signing, in August 2015, of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS), and urged parties to support the new national dialogue proposed by President Kiir, and all South Sudanese to pray relentlessly for peace.

The Church’s commitment for reconciliation is carried out first of all through direct mediation. Local Churches have been involved in facilitating talks since 2013, when Kiir, called the Catholic Bishop Emeritus of Torit, Paride Taban, and the Anglican Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul to lead the newly established Committee for the national reconciliation process.

Support to South Sudan from Churches worldwide

South Sudanese Churches’ mediation efforts have been actively supported by the Church worldwide and the Holy See, as testified by the so-called “Rome Initiative” launched in 2020 by the Italian Community of Sant’Egidio to bring to the negotiating table the opposition movements which hadn’t subscribed the “Revitalized Peace Agreement of 2018” (R-ARCSS). The Agreement, signed by Kiir and Machar in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, sought to revive the ARCSS of August 2015. Negotiations are still ongoing, as ethnic fighting in various areas continues.

The Church has been promoting reconciliation also through projects at the grassroots level aimed at training South Sudanese citizens on the issues of peace and healing.

The South Sudanese Churches are also at the forefront in providing humanitarian assistance to the approximately two million internally displaced people who have fled the violence.

Furthermore, the local Church, supported by several foreign Catholic charities and agencies, is actively involved in promoting human development, which is a key factor for peace. Widespread poverty, increased by climate change, lack of education and job opportunities for young people, and the scourge of child soldiers, contribute to hindering a long-lasting peace in the country. 

Among the many Church agencies operating in South Sudan are the U.S. Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the Italian Caritas, Doctors with Africa CUAMM, and several religious congregations.  

In 2008, at the request of the Sudanese Bishops’ Conference, the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), and the Union of Superiors General (USG), launched the “Solidarity with South Sudan Project”, which between 2008 and 2018, succeeded in training 475 primary school teachers, 190 nurses and midwives, over 1,000 farmers, and more than 1,500 pastoral agents with the support of 260 congregations, private donors and international agencies. Working closely with the local Church, the project runs a teacher training college, a health training institute, a sustainable farm with an outreach program, and pastoral services.

Closeness of Pope Francis to the South Sudanese people

Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his constant concern for the plight of the South Sudanese people, and over the years has launched several appeals for peace in the country, but also a number of significant initiatives. Among them, the special Prayer Vigil for South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo which he presided over in St. Peter’s Basilica on November 23, 2017, and the Day of Prayer he called for on February 23, 2018, following the first postponement, for security reasons, of his ecumenical visit to the country, along with Anglican Primate and Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

In the Summer of 2017, he also launched the “Pope for South Sudan” initiative, a financial contribution of around half a million US dollars to support health, educational and agricultural projects in the country.

Then, on April 11, 2019, the Pope and Archbishop Welby invited the highest South Sudanese civil and ecclesial authorities to join an ecumenical retreat in the Vatican. At the end of the retreat at the Casa Santa Marta, he made the highly significant gesture of kissing the feet of President Kiir and of his rival Machar in a plea for peace.

On 9 July 2021 Pope Francis, Archbishop Welby together with the then-Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Jim Wallace wrote a joint message to South Sudanese leaders expressing satisfaction with the progress made in the peace process while reaffirming the need to make “greater efforts” so that the people of South Sudan may ” enjoy the full fruits of independence”. The message also confirmed their intention to visit South Sudan as soon as conditions allowed.

Finally, Pope Francis reaffirmed his affection for the peoples of the Democratic Republic  of Congo and South Sudan in a video message he released on July 2, 2022, after the postponement of his Apostolic Journey to the two countries, in which he urged them not to let themselves “be robbed of hope”