By Carol Glatz Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY — Some 5 million people in South Sudan — half of its total population — are on the brink of starvation and a quarter of a million children are already severely malnourished, a representative from the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services said.
Famine has already gripped 100,000 people in Unity State and other parts of the nation, and if emergency food and aid don’t get to people soon, “people will start starving to death or they will die of dehydration,” Jerry Farrell, country representative in South Sudan for CRS, told Catholic News Service March 21.
Farrell and other representatives from dioceses, CRS, Caritas and other Catholic aid and development agencies working in South Sudan were in Rome for a meeting March 21-22 hosted by Caritas Internationalis to discuss the worsening crisis in the country. Despite the ongoing civil war, if the security situation does not escalate, Pope Francis hopes to visit the ravaged nation sometime in October, Bishop Erkolano Tombe of Yei, South Sudan, told Reuters March 21.
“We have been informed (by a Vatican official) that he will come in October, but we don’t know the exact date yet,” said the bishop, who was in Rome attending the Caritas Internationalis meeting. If the security situation “remains as it is now, he will come,” he said.
Pope Francis said in late February that he wanted to go to South Sudan and that Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic leaders there had urged him to visit together with Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury.
The pope said officials were studying whether the local situation was “too dangerous. But we have to do it, because they — the three (Christian communities) — together desire peace, and they are working together for peace.” With so much fertile land in the country, the food shortages and famine are man-made, Farrell said, a result of almost four years of violence, displacement, climate change and economic collapse with the rate of inflation nearing 800 percent.
The Catholic Church has always been in a unique position to respond to humanitarian disasters no matter how bad the situation escalates, Farrell said.
“The church never closes down. It’s extraordinary and it’s part of the community,” he said.
Parishes and church-run schools, hospitals and other institutions all open their doors to protect and care for people fleeing from violence. Through a network of churches and religious orders, “within 24 hours we can provide assistance” to any newly displaced.
Even with the risk of increasing violence and insecurity, the priests, nuns or church workers “might have to flee in the bush with the people for a day or so. But they come back,” he said.