Pope Francis on Friday arrived in South Sudan – a country hit by civil war and extreme poverty – for a three-day visit to spread the message of peace and reconciliation.
Fresh off the plane from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Pope landed in the capital Juda at 3pm local time to mark the first ever papal visit since the predominantly Christian nation gained independence from Muslim-majority Sudan in 2011 after decades of conflict.
In the years following South Sudan's independence, a five-year civil war has left 380,000 people dead, four million people displaced, and the young country deeply impoverished.
Pope Francis is scheduled to meet victims of the conflict, as well as the country's political and church leaders. He will preside over prayer sessions and an outdoor mass that is expected to draw large crowds.
The visit is the pontiff's fifth to Africa and was initially scheduled for 2022. He had to postpone that mission because of problems with his knee.
As a result of those, he became dependent on a wheelchair and was forced to downscale his itinerary in both countries.
In Juba, he the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland will join Francis I in a "pilgrimage for peace".
Hope for peace
The visit has been long anticipated in a devout country of 12 million where the church is a deeply respected institution with a long history of peace building.
"I am very excited to see him," Hanah Zachariah, 20, told French press agency AFP, one of dozens of pilgrims who walked nine days from the town of Rumbek to Juba, a journey of around 400 kilometres, 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, South Sudan remains mired in intractable conflict and hopes are pinned 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 South Sudanese to turn out in droves but have not offered an estimate of how many are expected to attend the pope's appearances.
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.