Father Christian Carlassare, 43, was airlifted from Rumbek to a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, and is stable after several blood transfusions, Vatican officials said.

“You pray for me and pray and pray for the people of Rumbek,” Fr Carlassare told Italian media.

“We also forgive those that commit these kinds of actions.

“We do not carry any grudges.”

The attack occurred shortly after midnight on April 26 when two gunmen entered Fr Carlassare’s residence, shot at the door of his room, then fired at least three bullets into his legs.

He had arrived in Rumbek on April 16 after serving as vicar general of the Diocese of Malakal since 2020.

Father James Oyet Latansio, general secretary of the South Sudan Council of Churches, told Catholic News Service on April 27 that three priests had been arrested in connection with the incident.

They are suspected to have been part of the network and conspiracy that led to the attack.

The priests’ arrest follows the extraction of records from a mobile phone that one of the gunmen dropped while fleeing the residence.

The last call on the phone was from a priest and the words, in the Dinka ethnic dialect, were: “Where is his room?”

The attack on the Fr Carlassare has sent shock waves through the Christian community in South Sudan and highlighted the risks clergy assume in serving in the conflict-ridden East African nation.

Some have suggested that the attack may have been a warning for the Catholic Church to keep out of the political disputes in the country.

The Catholic Church has acted as a mediator for the complex peace negotiations between the opposing Dinka and Nuer tribes, and previous South Sudanese bishops have played a crucial part in promoting cease-fires.

Ecumenical efforts, including by the South Sudan Council of Churches, have been instrumental in fitful periods of peace.

Archbishop Protase Rugambwa, secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, said in a message sent to the apostolic nunciature in South Sudan that members of the dicastery felt “great sorrow” upon hearing about the attack and wished to assure the bishop-elect of their “closeness in this moment of trial and the continuous support in prayer for a speedy recovery”.

The general council of the Comboni Missionaries in Rome also released a statement April 26 saying their confrere was doing well, was calling for prayers for South Sudan and had forgiven his assailants.

In early March, Pope Francis appointed the Comboni missionary to lead the Diocese of Rumbek and his episcopal ordination was scheduled for May 23, Pentecost Sunday.

The diocese had been vacant since 2011 after the sudden death of Bishop Cesare Mazzolari, a fellow Italian-born Comboni missionary.

Born near Vicenza, in northern Italy, in 1977, Carlassare studied in Florence and Rome and began working in what is now South Sudan in 2005, learning the Nuer language and serving in a variety of capacities, including vice provincial of the Comboni Missionaries in South Sudan.

The Vatican said that Pope Francis is praying for Fr Carlassare, who was set to become the world’s youngest Italian bishop.