Pope Francis sets off Tuesday on a six-day visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, two fragile African nations where protracted conflicts have displaced millions of civilians, sowing death, hunger and despair.
The trip – his fifth to Africa – takes the 86-year-old pope to countries blighted by conflict and poverty, where Catholics make up about half of the population and where the Church has long been a key player in democracy-building efforts.
First scheduled to take place last July, the visit was postponed because Francis was suffering a flare-up of a chronic knee ailment. He still uses a wheelchair and cane but his knee has improved significantly, allowing the wandering pontiff to set off on the 40th overseas trip of his papacy.
When Francis touches down in Kinshasa on Tuesday, he will be the first pope to visit the DRC since John Paul II travelled there in 1985 – when it was still known as Zaire. His trip to South Sudan on Friday will make him the first pontiff to visit the world’s newest country, which is still mired in violence a decade after the euphoria of independence gave way to a gruesome civil war.
Francis, who has frequently lamented humanity’s “growing inability to weep” in the face of suffering and injustice, will seek to bring comfort and recognition to the victims of violent conflict. On both stops, his priority will be efforts to foster peace in two countries that are rich in natural resources but beset with poverty and strife, where a perceived lack of interest by the international community is stoking anger and resentment.
“The reason Francis is going to the DRC is to draw attention to a conflict many people have grown tired of,” said Douglas Yates, an Africa specialist at the American University in Paris, referring to the fighting that has ravaged the country’s east for the past three decades. He added: “In the case of South Sudan, it’s a conflict that most people simply don’t understand.”
The plight of eastern DRC
In the run-up to the pope’s visit, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, the archbishop of Kinshasa, expressed dismay at the world’s perceived indifference to the unrest in eastern DRC.
“We cannot understand what is happening in the east of our country, why the international community, the United Nations, claim they are powerless to deal with a small group of armed militias,” the cardinal told FRANCE 24’s sister radio RFI. “When you look at the situation in Ukraine, where vast means are deployed to restore order, whereas in the DRC, the international community says it is impotent, it’s outrageous,” he added, voicing his belief that “the pope’s mere presence here will put the situation in the DRC at the heart of the world’s preoccupations.”
To many in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “home to Africa’s largest Catholic population, the pope’s visit is seen as an acknowledgment of the country’s importance within the wider Catholic community”, said political analyst Wamu Oyatambwe, speaking from central DRC. “But above all, the people hope this visit will draw the world’s attention to the suffering and expectations of the Congolese,” he added.
Francis had originally planned to visit the city of Goma, in the country’s volatile east, but that stop was scrapped following the resurgence of fighting between the army and the M23 rebel group in the area where Italy’s ambassador, his bodyguard and driver were killed in an ambush in 2021.
Fighting in eastern DRC, which is roamed by scores of armed groups, has simmered for years but spiked in late 2021 with the resurgence of the M23, which had been largely dormant for nearly a decade. The rebels have captured swaths of land and are accused by the United Nations and rights groups of committing atrocities against civilians.
Eastern DRC is also increasingly grappling with violence linked to Islamic militants. Earlier this month, the Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for killing at least 14 people and injuring dozens from a bomb that detonated inside a church while people were praying.
As a result, Francis will stay in the capital, Kinshasa, although he insisted on meeting there with victims of violence from the east.
“The pope will be sending a message of compassion and resilience to the victims,” said Oyatambwe. “Of course the message would have been more powerful if delivered from Goma. But given the security context, it is perfectly understandable that he should stay in Kinshasa.”
His audience in the DRC will be listening carefully for signs of condemnation of the “foreign powers and neighbouring countries that are fuelling the fighting in the east, hoping to lay their hands on the country’s natural resources”, Oyatambwe added, pointing to a leaked UN report last month that cited “substantial evidence” of Rwandan government support for the M23.
Bolstering democracy – and the Church
Francis will also be under pressure to take a stand on the DRC’s domestic politics – in line with the Church’s long history of challenging strongmen and upholding constitutional rule in the country.
A forthcoming presidential election in December, when Felix Tshisekedi will stand for a second term after his disputed election in 2018, is likely to loom large over the pope’s four-day visit, amid calls for Francis to urge clean and fair polls.
In the DRC, a vast country the size of western Europe, the Church has acted as a counterweight to government since the days of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Church leaders played a key role in the transition to a multi-party political system in the 1990s. Two decades later, they threw their weight behind protesters when former president Josep Kabila moved to extend his term in 2016 by delaying scheduled elections.
Relations with the current Congolese presidency have been tense, with the Church among the groups that raised doubts about the validity of the 2018 vote won by Tshisekedi.
“The Catholic Church carries considerable weight in the DRC and it does not shy away from taking a stand,” said Oyatambwe. “It also plays a key social role, providing health care and education, particularly in remote areas where the state is largely absent.”
Preserving and bolstering that role will be another objective of the pope’s visit, at a time when his reformist agenda has irked some Catholic leaders in Africa – and when Catholic hegemony in the DRC is challenged by the spread of evangelical churches, also known as revivalist churches, which appeal particularly to the poor.
While official Vatican statistics put the proportion of Catholics in the DRC at 49 percent of the population, other estimates put the number at about 40 percent, with Protestants of various denominations making up another 35 percent and Kimbanguists – a Christian movement born in colonial-era Belgian Congo – accounting for 10 percent.
“Contrary to popular belief, the DRC’s Catholic population is not growing – nor is it elsewhere in Africa,” said Odon Vallet, a historian of religion with extensive knowledge of the African continent.
“More and more Africans are turning to other churches, particularly those founded by Africans, even though they’re baptised as Catholics,” Vallet added. “It’s a major problem that Francis is well aware of, because much the same thing is happening in Latin America.”
Building bridges in South Sudan
As a “bastion of Catholicism on the continent, the DRC is well worth the investment for the pope,” said Yates at the American University in Paris, noting the growing rivalry with “evangelical Protestantism spreading across the developing world”.
However, Yates added, to focus on this rivalry would be to miss a key purpose of the pontiff’s African visit: namely to foster interfaith dialogue as a means to heal the continent’s festering divides.
“In particular, the voyage to South Sudan shows that Pope Francis really wants to do ecumenical peace building in Africa – building community cohesion as a recipe against conflict,” Yates explained.
The pope’s journey will take on an unprecedented nature on Friday when he leaves Kinshasa for South Sudan’s capital, Juba. That leg is being made with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields.
The three Churches represent the Christian make-up of the world’s youngest country, which gained independence in 2011 from predominantly Muslim Sudan after decades of conflict and has a population of around 11 million – almost half of which has been displaced by civil war.
“Together, as brothers, we will live an ecumenical journey of peace,” Francis told tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square for his Sunday address, two days before starting his trip to Africa. Meanwhile, Welby spoke of a “historic visit”, with the “leaders of three different parts of (Christianity) coming together in an unprecedented way”.
Church leaders played a crucial role in brokering a fragile peace deal in South Sudan in 2018, after more than 400,000 were killed in a civil war pitting forces loyal to President Salva Kiir against troops led by Vice President Riek Machar, who is from a different ethnic group. The peace deal stopped the worst of the fighting, but parts of the agreement – including the deployment of a re-unified national army – have not yet been implemented.
The conflict has displaced 2.2 million people within the country and forced another 2.3 million to flee as refugees, according to the United Nations, which has praised the Catholic Church as a “powerful and active force in building peace and reconciliation in conflict-torn regions”.
In one of the most remarked gestures of his papacy, Francis knelt to kiss the feet of South Sudan’s previously warring leaders Kiir and Machar during a meeting at the Vatican in April 2019, urging them not to return to war. The meeting was attended by the same Protestant leaders who will accompany him this week.
“Francis has tried peace-making, when he famously kissed the feuding leaders’ feet – and it was mostly successful,” said Yates. “What he’s doing now is peace-building: trying to build an ecumenical bridge between Catholics and Protestants, in this case Anglicans, who have been a very important Protestant denomination in South Sudan since British colonialism.”
While adapting his message to the countries’ specificities, the pope will follow a common thread from Kinshasa to Juba, said Oyatambwe, for whom the journey will no doubt shape the ageing pontiff’s African legacy.
“From the DRC to South Sudan, the pope will carry a message for all those who stoke instability, who court conflict instead of peaceful cohabitation,” he explained.
At 86 and with his health said to be fast declining, Francis could well be making his last visit to the African continent this week. According to Vallet, the globe-trotting pontiff known for his candid in-flight press conferences could yet spring a surprise on the return leg.
He added: “We don’t know whether something significant will happen, but we do know this much: the most important things Francis wishes to say, he’ll keep them for the flight back home.”
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