IT’S the world’s newest country, but South Sudan is also the poorest. Since it gained independence in 2011, many communities have suffered appalling acts of brutality carried out by rival factions and the civil unrest is compounded by consecutive years of flooding that have rotted crops, trees and bushes.

Over the years, Scots have generously supported communities struggling to survive famine and violence – and now the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Right Reverend Dr Iain Greenshields, is completing a visit to the country along with the Pope and Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury.

It’s a “very significant” event, according to Alistair Dutton, chief executive of the charity SCIAF, who visited South Sudan in October and heard harrowing tales of violence, including from women whose husbands had been murdered in front of them.

While the conflict is not rooted in religion, Dutton is hopeful that the visit of three prominent religious leaders will have a positive effect on the country which is largely Christian, with Episcopalians and Anglicans concentrated in some areas, Presbyterians in others and Roman Catholics prominent in many of the rest.

“Each leader will have a very different constituency in terms of faith loyalty so it is very significant that the three are there together to knock heads,” he said. “The conflict has never been religious but this will make the point very clearly with one voice to say ‘lay down your arms and make this country that you fought for work’.”

One of the tragedies of South Sudan is that the two dominant tribes, who had fought together to achieve independence, are now vying with each other for power, according to Dutton.

Meanwhile, other smaller groups feel they are marginalised, which has given rise to pockets of violence elsewhere in the country.

“This visit, as much as anything, is about conveying hope and a sense,” said Dutton. “It’s about bringing ecumenical, authoritative voices together to speak not only to the leaders but the people throughout the country to say that there is nothing of God in this and it is time to make this country work and live in harmony together.”

Dutton said the trip was clearly of great importance to the Pope as there had been doubts over whether his health would allow it to go ahead.

“He has been cancelling a lot of trips and this is one of the more gruelling so this is clearly high in his sense of what is important,” said Dutton. “It is a great initiative. It is a visit of hope and we have to hope that hope breaks through.”

The National: Alistair Dutton, Director at SciafAlistair Dutton, Director at Sciaf (Image: NQ)

SCIAF has been working with local organisations in South Sudan for more than 30 years and recently raised £1.5 million from people in Scotland to transform the lives of children with disabilities. This sum qualified for £1.3m of match funding from the UK Government, bringing the total to £2.8m.

“Scots give extra generously when they think their money will be doubled so it is thanks to that extra generosity that we brought in £1.5m for that programme,” said Dutton.

Asked if there was any point in giving aid to a country riven by fighting, he said “good, hard-working people” should not be “sacrificed to a narrative that the country is a basket case so we shouldn’t send aid”.

Dutton added: “When I was there, what really impressed me was that although the country is in conflict, we travelled freely and at each of the places we went, I was very impressed by the strength of civil society and the amount that ordinary people were achieving for themselves despite what else is going on in the country.

“They know where the violence is and where it is moving and they protect themselves and their assets as best they can. And when the wind blows through, they get on with things again.

“There are lots of pockets of real achievement and hope dotted around the country and now what is needed is to make that the country’s narrative rather than conflict.

“Aid is not going to get wasted in the fighting as we and other aid agencies ensure very clear lines of accountability and responsibility to get aid through to those who need it most,” said Dutton.

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Conflict is not new to South Sudan as the country experienced decades of violence from the 1950s before gaining independence. Since then there have been over 400,000 deaths as a result of conflict and four million people displaced.

An ecumenical pilgrimage to promote peace has been planned since 2017 and in 2019 a spiritual retreat was held at the Vatican for the divided South Sudan leaders when Pope Francis knelt down in front of the President, Salva Kiir, and Vice President, Riek Machar, in a plea for peace.

Dr Greenshields said he hoped this “unique” visit by the three leaders this weekend will raise awareness of the extreme poverty in the country as well as promote peace.

“We want people to hear that there is a pathway that they can take towards forgiveness, Christian love, reconciliation, and peace with one another so that the violence that continues will stop,” said Dr Greenshields.