South Sudanese Christians are ready to die close to Jesus Christ in church, a Roman Catholic priest has said, as 16,000 people have sought refuge at a cathedral compound as the nation spirals into genocide and famine.
"It wasn't safe anywhere, but people said that if they were going to be killed, they preferred to be killed in the church because this is the place where Jesus is present. They wanted to die in the church rather than die in their homes," said Father Germano Bernardo, a priest in Wau, according to Catholic News Service on Tuesday.
St. Mary Catholic Cathedral in the city has reportedly sheltered as many as 16,000 people in its compound, with the church being one of the only places of refuge for the hungry and suffering civilians.
The United Nations has warned that South Sudan, the world's youngest country, is on the brink of all-out genocide, stemming from ethnic divisions and a civil war between forces loyal to the president and vice president, respectively.
Rita Williams, one mother who sought refuge with her three children at St. Mary, said soldiers chased her family out of her house and burned it.
"We have nothing, not even salt. Our clothes are dirty, and some days all we have to eat or drink is water. We're waiting. I don't know for what, but we're afraid to go back home," Williams said.
The civil war violence has also directly affected the church, Bernardo revealed, with two members of the cathedral choir killed in June 2016.
"They were walking home in the evening after choir practice and were attacked by six soldiers who shot them dead," the priest said.
Government soldiers were looting and burning houses in Wau at the time, he added, with fighters driving around the city, "shooting people as they ran from their houses."
"There was no way to get to the cemetery, so we buried 14 people within the cathedral grounds," Bernardo explained. "From then until now, insecurity has reigned. So people stay in the churches. Many of their homes have been looted, and if they leave the town they'll be killed."
The U.N., Catholic Relief Services, and other humanitarian groups have been assisting the nearly 2 million people who have been displaced in the civil war, though the need is much greater than the services provided.
The U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, Eugene Owusu, separately warned in April that relief groups are being obstructed and prevented from helping the people in need.
"I am deeply disappointed that, despite the assurances that we have received and the commitments that have been made, humanitarians are again having to relocate, and civilians again being uprooted, in an area where needs were already high," Owusu said.
Aid workers have warned that up to 100,000 people could die in the famine that's ravaging a number of regions in the country, with nearly 5 million people going hungry.
The number of people killed in the civil war, including the number of Christians, is yet to be determined.
"It was a massacre although the number of victims is still unknown," church sources told Fides News Agency back in July 2016, speaking of the fighting in the civil war.
"The humanitarian issue is the most urgent, starting from the lack of drinking water. Thousands of people have taken refuge in churches and much is being done to offer them assistance, despite a thousand difficulties," the sources added.