Pope Francis is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in his second day in a mission that aims to bring peace in the eastern part of the country where thousands have been killed recently in an ongoing conflict.
This is the first papal visit in the country since 1985, and schools were closed on Feb. 1 after the government announced it would be a public holiday to allow faithful to attend a holy mass at Ndolo airport. Over 40% of DRC’s 95.6 million population are Catholics.
The last papal visit to Africa was a 2019 seven-day tour of three African countries: Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mauritius.
‘Stop exploiting Africa’
In his first day in Kinshasa on Jan.31, Pope Francis denounced acts by foreign mining companies that have been profiteering while exploiting the country’s natural mineral resources, leaving millions of people in abject poverty, oftentimes causing armed conflict.
“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa. It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” he said. “It is a tragedy that these lands, and more generally the whole African continent, continue[s] to endure various forms of exploitation.”
He decried the long-lasting economic colonialism and conflict in the country, which he said the international community had for the most part become resigned to. “May violence and hatred no longer find room in the heart or on the lips of anyone, since these are inhuman and unchristian sentiments that arrest development and bring us back to a gloomy past,” the pontiff said.
Pope Francis met with president Felix Tshisekedi, who thanked him for “praying fervently for peace in the eastern region of our nation,” but lamented that it has been three decades of bloodshed in the DRC where civilian security has “been undermined by enemies of peace and terrorist groups, especially from neighboring countries.” Rwanda has been blamed for fanning the war and backing M23 rebels.
On the same day, over 122,000 people, including 65,000 children, were reported to have fled their homes over the course of one day after escalation of the conflict in North Kivu province. “These attacks on civilians need to be investigated,” Amavi Akpamagbo, country director of Save the Children in DRC told Quartz.
The Pope also met and paid homage to the victims of the civil strife in Kinshasa.
Despite his initial itinerary including a visit to Goma, and Ituri in the North Kivu province, which are the epicenters of the conflict, the pope changed his itinerary preferring to not put the public expected to gather for his visit, in danger from the armed militia in the region.
He is, however, expected to receive a delegation of emissaries from the region, delivering an appeal for his intervention in the conflict. Just two days before his visit, armed militia carried out a massacre in the region that left at least 15 people dead.
DRC’s LGBTQ community has been hurting
The country’s LGBTQ community, which has been facing violence and excommunication, will also be looking upon the pontiff to proclaim a message of support. Pope Francis said in an interview with the Associated Press on Jan. 26 that “being homosexual isn’t a crime,” and that “we are all children of God, and God loves us as we are.”
After his visit to the country with the highest Catholic population in the continent on Feb.2, Pope Francis will take a three-and-a-half hour flight from Kinshasa to Juba, the capital of the world’s newest state South Sudan. He will be the first pope to visit the oil-rich country.
Pope Francis’ South Sudan trip
Having previously postponed the tour of Africa earlier intended for July 2022, due to ill health, this visit is expected to serve as a push for peace in yet another country that continues to languish in poverty despite possessing numerous mineral and natural resources.
Like in the DRC, thousands of lives have been lost and millions displaced in recent years in South Sudan due to civil unrest, especially in Upper Nile, Jonglei, and Unity states, 12 years after its secession from the larger Sudan.
A civil war pitting President Salva Kiir’s government forces and the opposition Sudan’s People Liberation Army (SPLA) has dampened the country’s hopes for economic development.
The fighting has largely been seen as a political struggle between factions allied to president Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group and supporters of the country’s first vice president, Riek Machar, mostly from the Nuer ethnicity. At the center of it are the vast oil reserves that South Sudan has.
There have also been human rights abuses and the curtailing of press freedom. Six journalists are currently behind bars over footage of the president wetting himself at an official event.
The security situation in the DRC and South Sudan has denied them millions of dollars in foreign investment, holding the countries back from achieving economic freedom.
While Pope Francis’ visit to both countries is by no means expected to be the silver bullet that will silence the guns, it is a critical step in pushing for a peaceful coexistence. But even with such peace efforts, African countries remain less secure than they were a decade ago.