Pope Francis on Tuesday begins a journey to two fragile African nations often forgotten by the world, where protracted conflicts have left millions of refugees and displaced persons struggling with hunger.
The visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan from January 31 to February 5 will take the 86-year-old pope to places where Catholics make up about half the population and where the church plays a key role in healthcare and education systems and in efforts to build democracy.
The trip was due to take place last July but was postponed because Francis was suffering from a flare-up of chronic knee disease. He still uses a wheelchair and a cane, but his knee has improved significantly.
Both countries are rich in natural resources – the Democratic Republic of the Congo in minerals and South Sudan in oil – but plagued by poverty and strife.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa’s second largest country with a population of about 90 million, is receiving a papal visit for the first time since John Paul II went there in 1985, when it was still known as Zaire.
Francis had planned to visit the eastern city of Goma, but that stop was canceled after fighting between the army and the M23 rebel group in the area where the Italian ambassador, his bodyguard and driver were killed in an ambush in 2021 , flared up again.
Francis will remain in the capital, Kinshasa, but will meet with victims of the violence from the east.
“Congo is a moral emergency that cannot be ignored,” Vatican Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo Archbishop Ettore Balestrero told Reuters.
According to the United Nations World Food Program, 26 million people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo suffer from severe hunger.
The country’s 45 million-strong Catholic Church has a long history of promoting democracy and is preparing to oversee elections scheduled for December in light of the arrival of the Pope.
“Our hope for Congo is that this visit will increase the Church’s commitment to support the electoral process,” said British Ambassador to the Vatican Christ Trott, who has spent many years as a diplomat in Africa.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is being visited by a pope for the first time since John Paul II traveled there in 1985, when it was still known as Zaire.
The journey will take on an unprecedented nature on Friday as the Pope leaves Kinshasa for the South Sudanese capital of Juba.
This leg will be led with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Moderator of the Church of Scotland General Assembly Iain Greenshields.
“Together, as brothers, we will walk an ecumenical path of peace,” Francis said in his Sunday address to tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square.
The three churches represent the Christian composition of the youngest country in the world, which became independent from the predominantly Muslim Sudan in 2011 after decades of conflict and has around 11 million inhabitants.
“This is going to be a historic visit,” Welby said. “After centuries of division, leaders from three different parts of (Christianity) are coming together in unprecedented fashion.”
Two years after independence, conflict erupted when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir clashed with those loyal to Vice President Riek Machar, who is from a different ethnic group. The bloodshed escalated into a civil war that killed 400,000 people.
A 2018 deal stopped the worst of the fighting, but parts of the deal – including deploying a reunited national army – have yet to be implemented.
There are 2.2 million internally displaced people in South Sudan and another 2.3 million have fled the country as refugees”.
In one of the most notable gestures since the beginning of his papacy in 2013, Francis knelt to kiss the feet of South Sudan’s previously belligerent leaders during a Vatican retreat in April 2019, urging them not to return to the civil war.
Trott, a former ambassador to South Sudan, said he hoped the three churchmen could persuade political leaders to “fulfill the promise of the independence movement.”