Pope’s Africa trip spotlights conflict, and church’s future

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis is opening a six-day visit to Congo and South Sudan on Tuesday, aiming to bring a message of peace to two countries plagued by poverty, conflict and what Francis called a long “colonial mentality” he considers Africa even more ripe for exploitation.

Aid groups hope Francis’ trip will shine a spotlight on two of the world’s most forgotten conflicts and reignite international attention on some of Africa’s worst humanitarian crises, amid donor fatigue and new aid priorities in Ukraine.

But Francis’ trip will also bring the future of the Catholic Church face-to-face: Africa is one of the only places in the world where the Catholic flock is growing, in terms of faithful practice as well as new vocations for the community. priesthood and religious life.

This makes his trip even more important, the fifth trip to the African continent in his 10-year pontificate, as Francis tries to make his mark on the remodeling of the church as a “field hospital for wounded souls” where everyone and people are welcome poor. particular pride out of place.

“Yes, Africa is in crisis and it is also suffering from the invasion of exploiters,” Francis told the Associated Press in an interview last week. But he said the church can also learn from the continent and its people.

“We must listen to their culture: dialogue, learn, speak, promote,” said Francis, suggesting that his message would differ from the scolding tone of Saint John Paul II used in 1980 and 1985 when he recalled Congolese priests and bishops must adhere to their vows of celibacy.

The Congo, Francis’ first stop, stands as the African country with the most Catholics: Half of its 105 million people are Catholics, there are over 6,000 priests, 10,000 nuns and more than 4,000 seminaries – 3.6 % of the global total included in the country. for young men studying for the priesthood.

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Congolese faithful flocked to Kinshasa for Francis’ main event, Wednesday’s Mass at Ndolo airport which is expected to draw up to 2 million people in one of the largest gatherings of its kind in Congo and one of the Masses more than ever.

“There are people who recorded planes coming here because there were so many of them!” surprised Inniance Mukania, who traveled to Kinshasa from the diocese of Kolwezi in southern Congo.

On the eve of the Pope’s visit, President Felix Tshisekedi met with foreign diplomats in Kinshasa and told them that the visit was a sign of solidarity “especially with the affected communities in the east of the country, who are prey to acts of violence and intolerance.” by witness.”

Jesus-Noel Sheke, the technical coordinator of the organizing committee for the papal visit, said that almost everything was ready at Ndolo, where the organizers have set up arrangements for 22 huge screens to broadcast the service live.

“There are only a handful of decorations left,” he told journalists about the preparations made over the weekend. “They will be done the day before.”

The trip was originally scheduled for July, but was postponed due to Francis’ knee problems. There was also supposed to be a halt in Goma, in eastern Congo, but the surrounding North Kivu region has been plagued by intense fighting between government troops and the M23 rebel group, as well as attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State group.

About 5.7 million people have been displaced by the fighting, a fifth of them last year alone, according to the World Food Programme.

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Instead, Francis will meet a delegation of people from the east traveling to Kinshasa for a private meeting at the Vatican embassy. The plan calls for them to participate in a ceremony together to forgive their attackers.

Although the people of Goma were sad that Francis will not be visiting the east, “we hope that with the visit the Pope will be able to bring the message of peace to the people of Congo that they need,” said Providence Bireke , a man based in Goma. manager with AVSI, an Italian aid group active in the area.

The second leg of Francis’ trip will take him to South Sudan, the world’s youngest country where ongoing fighting has blocked the implementation of a 2018 peace deal to end civil war. Francis initially indicated that he hoped to visit the most Christian country in 2017, but security concerns prevented a visit and only contributed to the worsening of a humanitarian crisis displaced more than 2 million people.

The South Sudan stop also represents a novelty in the history of the pope’s travels, in that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. The Rev. Iain Greenshields.

The aim of the three-way visit is to show a united Christian commitment to help South Sudan make progress on the implementation of the 2018 agreement. Francis led a similar joint initiative in 2019 at the Vatican when he famously got down on his hands and knees and kissed the feet of South Sudan’s rival leaders, begging them to make peace.

Since then, progress on the implementation of the agreement – in particular the creation of a unified army comprising government forces and opposition fighters – has been “painfully slow,” said Paolo Impagliazzo of the Community of Sant’Egidio, which led an initiative to bring these groups forward. you did not sign the 2018 agreement in the process.

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“The visit will give hope to the people,” Impagliazzo said in an interview in Rome. “And I believe that the visit will strengthen the churches — the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, the local church — which play a vital role in achieving peace and dialogue in South Sudan.”

One area of ​​particular concern is the widespread availability of firearms among the civilian population, which has led to ongoing fighting in areas as cattle herders demand more land or factional leaders claim more territory. get, he said.

The 2017 Small Arms Survey estimated that South Sudanese civilians owned approximately 1.2 million firearms, or 1 in 10 people. The estimate was believed to be low and many compared to the number of firearms per capita in Europe or the United States, but it remains an unresolved issue “that will not proceed until we have the opportunity to have a unified army that to have,” Impagliazzo said.

Francis has long denounced the arms industry, calling traffickers “merchants of death”. In an interview with AP, he repeated his criticism.

“The world is obsessed with having weapons,” Francis said. “Instead of trying to help us live, we try to help us kill.”


Kamale and Ntshangase reported from Kinshasa, Congo. Contributed by Sam Mednick from Dakar, Senegal.

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