Pope Francis and the archbishop of Canterbury will begin a historic joint visit to South Sudan on Friday against the backdrop of potential tensions over LGBTQ+ rights.
The leaders of the global Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, whose numbers are growing in sub-Saharan Africa in contrast to the west, will be joined on their “pilgrimage of peace” by the leader of the Church of Scotland.
Pope Francis, Justin Welby and Iain Greenshields will meet President Salva Kiir, bishops and clergy, and people displaced by conflict in the area.
Before the visit, Francis and Welby have risked angering local political and church leaders with statements about same-sex relationships that contrast with deeply conservative views that predominate in South Sudan.
Francis said in an interview that laws that criminalise homosexuality were unjust. “We are all children of God, and God loves us as we are and for the strength that each of us fights for our dignity,” he said.
The Catholic church should work to put an end to such laws, he said. “It must do this.” In line with Catholic teaching, he said homosexual acts were sinful but added: “Let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime.”
Sexual activity between men is against the law in South Sudan and theoretically punishable with sentences of up to 14 years’ imprisonment and a fine. There is little evidence of the law being enforced in recent years, but human rights groups say LGBTQ+ people are regularly subjected to discrimination and violence.
Welby has said he is “extremely joyful” at the prospect of Church of England clergy blessing couples in same-sex marriages, even though he will not personally offer such blessings for the sake of unity in the global Anglican church.
But Archbishop Justin Badi Arama, the head of the Anglican church in South Sudan, said Welby was “failing to defend biblical truth”, and his role as moral leader of the global church had been “severely jeopardised”.
Badi said: “What the English bishops are recommending constitutes unfaithfulness to God who has spoken through His written word.” He accused them of “rewriting God’s law”.
A spokesperson said Welby looked forward to “spending time with Archbishop Badi” and other church members to hear “their experiences of the terrible suffering in the country”.
The Anglican church claims about 80 million followers worldwide, with most of its growth in sub-Saharan Africa as congregations in the west dwindle. The Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches, a conservative group that rejects any change to biblical teaching on marriage and homosexuality, claims to represent 75% of the total.
Similarly, the Roman Catholic church, which claims 1.3 billion followers around the globe, has seen its biggest growth in Africa in recent years.
The ecumenical visit to South Sudan was due to take place last July but was postponed after Francis was advised by his doctors not to travel.
Francis has wanted to visit the predominantly Christian country for years but plans for a trip have been repeatedly postponed because of instability in the region.
South Sudan broke away from Sudan to become independent in 2011 after decades of conflict, but civil war erupted in 2013. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, violence and hunger still plague the country.