POPE Francis knelt to kiss the feet of South Sudan's previously warring leaders as he urged them to stay on the path to peace in a dramatic gesture at the Vatican.
President Salva Kiir and his former deputy turned rebel leader Riek Machar clashed in 2013, resulting in a civil war that left over 380,000 people dead in a country that only achieved independence in 2011.
During a spiritual retreat at his residence on Thursday, Francis urged the two rivals and three other vice presidents to respect an armistice they signed last year and commit to forming a unity government next month.
The men appeared stunned as the 82-year-old pontiff, who suffers from chronic leg pain, was helped by aides as he knelt with difficulty to kiss the shoes of the two main opposing leaders and others in the room.
"I am asking you as a brother to stay in peace. I am asking you with my heart, let us go forward," Francis said after performing the rare gesture.
"There will be many problems but they will not overcome us. Resolve your problems."
His appeal comes as tensions rise among the predominantly Christian South Sudanese following a coup in the mainly Muslim Sudan on Thursday, with fears that the neigbouring conflict could risk the fragile peace deal that ended South Sudan's brutal five-year civil war.
The Vatican brought together the East African nation's leaders for 24 hours of prayer in an attempt to heal bitter divisions before the country is due to set up a unity government.
"There will be struggles, disagreements among you but keep them within you, inside the office, so to speak," Francis added during the meeting.
"But in front of the people, hold hands united. So, as simple citizens, you will become fathers of the nation."
In his pre-prepared address earlier on Thursday, Francis said South Sudan's people were exhausted by war and the leaders had a duty to build their young nation in justice.
He also repeated his wish to visit the country along with other religious leaders to reinforce the peace process.