The new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich, has praised the “fearless leadership” of the Catholic Church in advancing “peace, justice and prosperity” in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo — two African countries wracked by years of crippling poverty, violence and war. 

Delivering her first speech as ambassador at a Jan. 18 round table in Rome on how to bring peace to both countries, Ambassador Gingrich said the Church’s leadership in the two nations has been an “inspiration to the world” and that she greatly appreciated the Church’s “hard work and tireless pursuit of peace.”

The ambassador also commended the Church for supporting civil society in the fight for justice and “working for a mediated solution through dialogue.” The Church has taken mediatory roles in both counties, with most direct efforts taking place in the DRC.  

The round table at the Pontifical Urbaniana University on the theme “Building Peace Together” was sponsored by a variety of Church organizations involved in humanitarian work in South Sudan and the DRC, as well as the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Development, the International Union of Superiors General, and Caritas Internationalis.

Those in attendance included the ambassador’s husband, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, diplomats, missionaries, and students at the university, while musicians from the DRC provided some traditional music during the intervals.

 

Development Needs Security

Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Ghanaian president of the Dicastery, said the organizers and participants were “seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit” to find peace in these countries, adding that “non-violence is not only rhetoric against war” or about “moving away from war,” but a pledge to “rebuild the dignity” of the people.

Gingrich recalled words Cardinal Turkson had recently told her — that societies cannot be developed without security — and she stressed that children “cannot be educated when they are hungry,” communities cannot be fed “when aid workers and farmers are attacked,” businesses cannot survive when communities are “plagued by corruption,” and the rights of women cannot be guaranteed “when sexual violence is commonplace.”

She said the United States is therefore “actively engaged in supporting democracy, human rights and the rule of law” in both countries, and that the U.S. government, along with the rest of the world, was “shocked” when peaceful Church-organized protests were “violently suppressed” by DRC security forces on Dec. 31.

Catholics had called for a "peaceful march" after Sunday Mass, demanding that President Joseph Kabila step down. The president’s alleged refusal to relinquish office after his second full term ended in 2016 has led to conflict and tension over the past year. Kabila has led the country since 2001.

The DRC, a vast former Belgian colony once known as Zaire, is extremely rich in natural resources which some say has acted like a curse on the nation leading to countless wars. In 2016, it was ranked the second poorest nation in the world. Most of the country is Christian, with Catholics making up about half of its 79 million people.

Gingrich stressed that the U.S. is the DRC’s “largest bilateral donor” and will continue supporting the Congolese people in their efforts to “build a better a future,” as well as the United Nations Stabilization Mission (peacekeeping force) in the country.

Regarding South Sudan, the ambassador called on all parties involved in the continuing civil war there to lay down their weapons, negotiate a permanent peaceful resolution to the conflict, and allow the east African nation to experience the “peace and prosperity” its people deserve.

Gingrich said the conflict there has had a “devastating effect on the people” and that the U.S. government is “watching closely” a ceasefire signed in December.

 

Neighbors Fighting Everywhere

Loreto Sister Orla Treacy, principal of the Loreto Secondary School in Rumbek, South Sudan, told the conference that “neighbors are fighting each other all over the country” and asked: “Who’s funding the guns?” But her main focus was on efforts to end forced marriage among girls as young as 13, a scourge, she said, which is part of a “struggle to survive.”   

Listed the 16th poorest nation in 2016, South Sudan has been torn by a four-year civil war after incumbent leader Salva Kiir accused former vice president Riek Machar of staging a coup d’état. The disagreement degenerated into military confrontation, leading to an estimated loss of at least 50,000 lives (some say it could be as many as 300,000) and the forced displacement of 3.5 million people out of a population of 12 million.

Since last month’s ceasefire agreement in Addis Ababa, several violations have occurred, with both sides blaming each other for the breach. 

The extent of the suffering there was documented in a video made by South Sudanese Catholics and shown at the conference. “Children are dying of hunger and women are often raped,” the narrator said, adding that “all citizens must come together to work for peace, to bring to an end this insecurity, above all for women and children otherwise we have no future here.”

Gingrich said the U.S. has been the largest donor of humanitarian aid in South Sudan since 2013, delivering $2.9 million to its people, refugees and neighbouring states. She called on the government to provide “free, safe and unhindered access” for humanitarian organisations, and assured the Church leaders present that they have the “full support” of the United States.

Last month, South Sudanese Church leaders called on Pope Francis to visit the war-ravaged nation, hoping he could be a “a voice for the voiceless.” The Holy Father had planned to visit the country in October, but cancelled it citing security concerns. Instead, he donated $30,000 to help feed the country's most vulnerable citizens ahead of the upcoming dry season.