Pope Francis exchanges gifts with South Sudan President Salva Kiir during a private audience at the Vatican, March 16, 2019.
Pope Francis exchanges gifts with South Sudan President Salva Kiir during a private audience at the Vatican, March 16, 2019.

VATICAN CITY - South Sudan's president and opposition leader are expected to travel to the Vatican next week for what the Holy See says is a "spiritual retreat" and opposition officials say is an effort to help implement the country's peace deal.

Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti confirmed the visit Wednesday. He said a spiritual retreat was scheduled next week at the Vatican for "the leaders of South Sudan." He didn't identify them or cite any political initiative.
 
The meeting comes a month after President Salva Kiir met with Pope Francis to discuss the peace process.

Pope Francis exchanges gifts with South Sudan President Salva Kiir during a private audience at the Vatican, March 16, 2019.
Pope Says Hopes to Visit South Sudan to Promote Peace
Pope Francis has met with the president of South Sudan and told him that he still hopes to visit the country “as a sign of closeness to the population and of encouragement for the peace process.”   Francis met with President Salva Kiir in the Apostolic Palace on Saturday.

A deputy spokesman to opposition leader Riek Machar said Machar and two leaders from the South Sudan Opposition Alliance would attend the meeting with Kiir, and said an audience with the pope is also planned.
 
The spokesman, Manawa Peter, said the April 10 meeting would focus on confidence-building and helping bring the two leaders together.
 
South Sudan is emerging from a five-year conflict that killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions. A peace deal calls for the formerly warring sides to create a single functional government by May.
 
That's when Machar is expected to return to South Sudan to once again become the president's deputy — an arrangement that has collapsed in fighting in the past.

FILE - Women and girls speak to members of a U.N. peacekeeping patrol as they walk to get food in Bentiu, fearful of being attacked on the way, near Nhialdu, South Sudan, Dec. 7, 2018.
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The bishops of the Catholic Church in South Sudan are expressing concern about the future of South Sudan's peace agreement, signed last year.The bishops said in a statement Thursday they welcomed the agreement as a step forward."However, the concrete situation on the ground demonstrates that it is not addressing the root causes of the conflict in South Sudan,'' they said.The bishops said human rights abuses continue with impunity, including murder, rape, widespread sexual violence, looting and…

Machar's participation in the Vatican meeting had been in doubt because he has been under house arrest for two years, most of it in South Africa. But Peter, the deputy spokesman, said he would be allowed to travel to Rome, and is expected to be released from house arrest altogether by the end of the month.
 
Peter said the Vatican initiative aimed to address the lack of trust that had foiled past peace efforts.
 
"If we want to bring the people of South Sudan together and mend the peace agreement, they need to have a good relationship and they need to build trust before we form the government," he told The Associated Press. "We're happy he'll be able to go and meet with other political leaders from South Sudan. It will be good for all of them."

Pope Francis recites the Regina Coeli prayer from his studio's window overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, May 28, 2017.
Vatican Scraps Plan for Pope to Go to South Sudan This Year
The Vatican said on Tuesday it had scrapped tentative plans for Pope Francis to make a visit this year to South Sudan, which has been hit by civil war, famine and a refugee crisis.Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the trip "was not for this year" but did not say when it might now take place.Church leaders in the country said they had expected the pope would visit the capital, Juba, probably in October, but the Vatican had never announced the trip officially.Burke did not give a reason for the…

Francis had hoped to visit South Sudan in 2017 along with the archbishop of Canterbury, but security conditions forced it to be called off. During his March 16 meeting with Kiir, Francis renewed his hope to visit, the Vatican said at the time.