Pope Francis takes peace mission to S.Sudan after DR Congo

KINSHASA, DR Congo - Pope Francis is due to arrive on a three-day visit to South Sudan on Friday to promote peace and reconciliation in the world's youngest country, riven by the scars of civil war and extreme poverty.

The "pilgrimage of peace" is the first ever papal visit to South Sudan since the predominantly Christian nation gained independence from Muslim-majority Sudan in 2011 after decades of conflict.

It follows a four-day visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a brutal conflict in the mineral-rich east was high on the pope's agenda.

Peace has also eluded South Sudan, with a five-year civil war leaving 380,000 people dead, four million displaced, and the young country deeply impoverished.

Crowds began lining the streets of Juba hours before the pope's arrival, waving the national flag and holding aloft banners welcoming Francis to South Sudan.

Some people wore traditional clothing or the garb of religious orders, while others ululated, blew horns and whistles, and sang hymns.

The 86-year-old pontiff is expected to meet victims of conflict, as well as the country's political and church leaders, between prayers and an outdoor mass that is expected to draw large crowds.

The visit -- Francis's fifth to Africa -- was initially scheduled for 2022 but had to be postponed because of problems with the pope's knee.

The affliction has made him dependent on a wheelchair and has seen the itinerary pared back in both countries.

'We want to achieve peace'

He will be joined in South Sudan by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, underlining the broad appeal of Christianity in the devout country of 12 million people.

"I am very excited to see him," Hanah Zachariah, 20, told AFP, one of dozens of pilgrims who walked nine days from the town of Rumbek to Juba, a journey of around 400 kilometres (250 miles), in a bid to see the pope.

Francis promised in 2019 to travel to South Sudan when he hosted the country's two warring leaders, President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar, at a Vatican retreat and asked them to respect a hard-fought ceasefire for their people.

In scenes that reverberated in South Sudan, where 60 percent of the people are Christian, the Argentine knelt and kissed the feet of two foes whose personal armies had been accused of horrific war crimes.

But four years later, the country remains mired in intractable conflict.

In a sign of the chronic violence, at least 21 people were killed in a cattle raid on the eve of his visit, in what authorities termed a reprisal attack in South Sudan's state of Central Equatoria.

War-weary citizens have pinned their hopes on Francis to encourage much-needed unity in a nation riven with ethnic and political division.

"We have suffered a lot. Now, we want to achieve peace," said Robert Michael, a 36-year-old businessman, beneath one of many towering billboards in Juba welcoming the pope.

Friday has been declared a public holiday. Officials have encouraged people to turn out in droves but have not offered an estimate of how many are expected to attend the pope's appearances.

'Brutal atrocities'

Roads in the capital have been tarmacked for the occasion, and security officials said Wednesday that an additional 5,000 police and soldiers would be on the streets.

The visit follows a trip to Kinshasa, the capital of neighbouring DRC, marking the first time since 1985 that a pope has travelled to the deeply troubled country, which has Africa's biggest Catholic following.

Before boarding his plane on Friday, the pope -- who appeared fatigued -- urged Congolese bishops to focus on the people and not just "political activity".

About 40 percent of DRC's more than 100 million people are Catholic, according to estimates, and the church retains huge influence.

Earlier during his trip, Francis slammed "brutal atrocities" after hearing harrowing accounts from eastern Congo, including testimony from victims of sexual violence and mutilation at the hands of militias.

The pope also called for mercy from God.

"May he convert the hearts of those who carry out brutal atrocities, which bring shame upon all humanity," the pope said.

He added that the conflict was driven by greed for resources at the expense of innocent victims and denounced "economic colonialism" in the turbulent region.

Francis also hosted a mega-mass at Kinshasa's airport and implored young Congolese to shun corruption, at a packed stadium event attended by tens of thousands.