ROME — Pope Francis on Thursday got on his hands and knees before the leaders of South Sudan’s government and its opposition, kissing their shoes and imploring the two men to maintain the tenuous peace that exists between them.
“I’m asking you with my heart,” the pope said to the president, Salva Kiir, and the opposition leader, Riek Machar, clutching his hands in front of his chest. “Stay in peace.”
The dramatic gesture happened during a spiritual retreat by the two men at the Vatican and came only hours after the military in neighboring Sudan ousted its longtime leader, President Omar al-Bashir, after 30 years of authoritarian rule.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011; by December 2013, the country had devolved into a civil war that killed at least 400,000 people and displaced millions.
Last September, Mr. Kiir and his former vice president turned rebel leader, Mr. Machar, signed a peace agreement in Ethiopia. On Thursday, the two men went to the Vatican for an exceptional two-day ecumenical retreat inside the pope’s residence.
“There will be fights among you, but let these be inside the office,” Francis said, staring the leaders and other South Sudanese officials in the eye and urging them to respect their recent armistice and commit to forming a unity government next month. “But in front of the people, hold hands.”
Other peace agreements between the South Sudanese leaders have failed. The fate of this one, experts say, is connected to what happens in Sudan now that Mr. Bashir has been deposed.
Mr. Bashir was, along with Uganda’s president, a guarantor of the deal. His departure is yet another complication for a war-torn country struggling to maintain peace.
The Vatican has for years sought to foster peace in South Sudan, and it saw an opportunity in the latest armistice.
Francis sat at his desk in a small room inside the Vatican facing the South Sudanese leaders, who were seated on a couch. The pope read remarks in which he said that while God’s gaze was on them, “there is another gaze directed to you: is the gaze of your people, and it expresses their ardent desire for justice, reconciliation and peace.”
The pope encouraged the two leaders to find common ground.
“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!”
At the conclusion of his speech, the pope offered some impromptu remarks, appealing to them again to keep the peace.
Then he sought the leaders’ permission to approach, and stunned the men by kneeling. His breath was labored as he bent down to kiss their feet.
One after the other, the men helped Francis as he struggled to rise up again.