VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis has accepted an invitation to visit South Sudan to preach peace in the country embroiled in inter-ethnic and political strife, religious leaders said after talks with the pontiff on Thursday.
"He accepted the invitation and said that in principle he really wants to come," said Rev. Peter Gai Lual Marrow of the South Sudan's Presbyterian Church.
Marrow and Paulino Lukudu Loro, Catholic Archbishop of the capital, Juba, and Episcopalian Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul Yak held talks with the pope, who had asked them to come to the Vatican to discuss the situation in their country.
Oil-producing South Sudan, which became independent in 2011, descended into civil war in December 2013 when a dispute between President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy Riek Machar ended with fighting, often occurring along ethnic lines. Both sides have targeted civilians, human rights groups say.
A peace pact in 2015 ostensibly ended the fighting but has frequently been violated. Major clashes broke out again in July.
The pope would also need an invitation from the government to visit the country. South Sudanese mostly follow Christian or traditional animist beliefs.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights warned this week that South Sudan is suffering a rise in hate speech and incitement to violence against certain ethnic groups which could result in mass atrocities if the government does not act.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)