Pope Francis to visit DR Congo and South Sudan this summer

Pontiff has taken an interest in the conflicts that have plagued the African countries

Pope Francis will visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan in July, the Vatican announced on March 3, 2022. EPA
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Pope Francis will visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan in July, the Vatican announced on Thursday.

The pontiff, 85, has taken an interest in the violence that has plagued the two nations, which share a border.

He will arrive in DRC on July 2 to visit the capital, Kinshasa, and Goma, the main city in the restive eastern province of North Kivu, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said.

On July 5 he will head north for two days in South Sudan, visiting the capital, Juba, as part of a trip organised “at the invitation of their respective heads of state and bishops”.

Security is likely to be tight for both parts of the trip, the Pope’s fifth to Africa and his second overseas visit announced for this year.

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, has suffered from chronic instability, including a five-year civil war, since gaining independence from Sudan in 2011.

DRC, which Pope John Paul II visited in August 1985, is struggling to contain dozens of armed groups in its east.

Senior Catholic leaders in DRC welcomed the news, saying the Pope’s visit was an “invaluable gift”.

Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa, head of the national bishops’ conference, told a press conference in Kinshasa it would “revive the hope of the Congolese people, who need peace, security and well-being”.

Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, archbishop of Kinshasa, said the Pope’s visit was “an invaluable gift ... to our country, to our people, a people who are currently going through difficult times”.

About 40 per cent of the estimated 90 million inhabitants of DRC are Catholic. Another 35 per cent are Protestant or affiliated to Christian revivalist churches, nine per cent are Muslim and 10 per cent follow the Congolese Kimbanguist church.

The country has a secular government, but religion is omnipresent in most people’s lives and the Catholic Church in particular has at times played a leading role in local politics.

South Sudan has lurched from crisis to crisis even after a 2018 peace deal, battling flooding and hunger as well as violence and political bickering as the promises of the agreement failed to materialise.

On Tuesday, the UN said at least 440 civilians were killed in fighting between rival armed militias in south-western South Sudan between June and September last year.

The Vatican has been directly involved in efforts to end the conflict, with Pope Francis himself kissing the feet of rival leaders Salva Kiir and Riek Machar in 2019.

Pope Francis has made four visits to the continent of Africa since his election in 2013.

He visited Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic in 2015, Egypt in 2017, and two years later went first to Morocco, then spent a week in Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius.

The trip to South Sudan and DRC is the second papal visit announced for this year, and the first outside Europe since a visit to Iraq from March 5-8 last year.

Pope Francis is due to travel to Malta on April 2, for two days.

The pontiff, who last year spent 10 days in hospital after undergoing an operation on his colon, recently cancelled several engagements due to knee pain.

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Updated: March 06, 2022, 8:35 AM