Why is the Pope going to the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

The Pope is visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan from January 31 to February 5 for his 40th trip abroad since 2013. In the conflict-torn DRC, the pope wants to send a message of peace and warn people about the drama unfolding in the east of the country. His visit is also an opportunity to promote Africa’s largest Catholic country, a continent where evangelical Christians are gaining strength.

” I’m sorry. The Pope speaks the Angelus for Sunday from the window of the Apostolic Palace in front of the crowded St. Peter’s Square, June 12, 2022. Two days ago, the Holy See announced the cancellation of the visit to the DRC and South Sudan planned for July. Officially, the Pope ” is required not to compromise the results of the ongoing knee treatment”. However, due to the security situation in the eastern Congo province, the trip organizers decided to postpone the trip. sinusto die.

A blow to the Pope, who insisted on quickly changing the visit and respecting a country of more than 105 million people, half of whom are Catholic. “This beginning of 2023 was the last possible window for him, because we are expecting elections at the end of the year and the Holy See does not want to influence or mediate their progress,” the diplomatic source wrote. categorizes this trip in line with Francois’ spectacular trips to Iraq in 2021 or to the Central African Republic in 2015.

On the eve of this visit, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, the equivalent of the Pope’s Prime Minister, made sure that the pontiff was flying to Africa as a “pilgrim of peace and reconciliation”. Notably, the DRC is plagued by endemic poverty – the former Belgian colony ranked 175th out of 189 countries on the United Nations’ 2020 Human Development Index. The security situation is equally critical, especially in the east of the country, where the Pope originally wanted to go.

out of indifference

Bishop Willy Ngumbi of Goma says: “The place where the Pope celebrated Mass last July is now on the front line.” For several months, his diocese has been divided, with one part now in the hands of the M23 rebels, a powerful armed group formed in March 2009 and mainly made up of Rwandans from northern Congo.

The region, rich in minerals, is the prey of dozens of militia groups that thrive on the funds of ethno-economic interests. “Villages, schools, medical facilities… ADF/MTM rebels [nébuleuse que certains affilient à l’État islamique, NDLR] kill with knives, loot property, take children, youth, adults, women and men with them to carry the looted property … Then they burn houses and other properties before retreating”, for example, describes the bishop of the diocese, Mgr Melchizedek Sikuli. Butembo-Beni , still in North Kivu.

We can talk about millions of deaths in the last 30 years. It’s disgusting… And what’s incredible is that it’s happening with the greatest indifference.

The interests of neighboring states are also hidden behind these heavily armed armed groups. “Rwanda has an exchange specializing in gold… But Rwanda does not produce a single gram of gold on its territory,” mutters the diplomat, horrified by all the drama in eastern DRC. “We can talk about millions of deaths in the last 30 years. It’s disgusting… And what’s incredible is that it happens with the greatest indifference,” he laments, seeing the Pope’s visit as an opportunity to educate.

The 86-year-old Pope, who had to give up going to North Kivu, personally wanted to meet the victims from eastern Congo in the capital Kinshasa, where he will stay for three nights. This will be one of the highlights of this trip. Mrs. Willy Ngumbi, who will accompany the Pope in front of the former child soldiers, will also be forced to work with others, “there will be young girls who are abused by the rebels, taken to the forests to be like sex slaves”. mines or even victims of the volcanic eruption that hit the Goma region in May 2021.

In what some have predicted will be a “hair-raising” speech, the Pope is expected to make a plea for peace. But he may once again criticize the West’s attitude to the exploitation of natural resources in Africa. In an extensive interview Mundo Negro, the journal of the Comboni community, the Pope had already denounced the persistence of a colonial mentality regarding Africa in mid-January. A few days later, it appeared in the columns of the AP agency, He explained that African countries definitely gained land independence, but “the basement remained in the hands of the colonialists who came later.”

Promote Africa’s largest Catholic country

A day after his arrival in Congo, Pope Francis is expected to hold a mass in front of more than a million faithful gathered on the tarmac of Kinshasa airport. A moment of joy for a country with about 50 million Catholics, or 20% of Catholics, on the African continent. The first French-speaking Catholic country in the world, this vast territory saw the arrival of the first Portuguese missionaries in the late 15th century.

The church’s presence has grown over the centuries, and today the institution has a unique network of health and education infrastructure—it runs a third of the country’s public schools and 40% of the country’s health facilities, according to the Congo Study Group. A position that allows to eliminate the shortcomings of state bodies as much as possible. A Congolese Jesuit emphasizes that “when there is no state in the DRC, the church provides it”.

In this country, which gained independence in 1960, the church has also been regularly active in defending the rule of law against successive authoritarian powers. In 2015, the powerful DRC bishops’ conference, CENCO, threw itself into the fight for a democratic transition after 15 years of Kabila rule. After the elections were held at the end of 2018 with the mass mobilization of thousands of citizens, 40,000 observers were deployed in the area to ensure the smooth conduct of the elections.

But the result of the vote eluded the body that initially did not recognize the election of Felix Tshisekedi as president and ensured that the real winner was Martin Fayulu. The future Archbishop of Kinshasa, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, condemned the “denial of the truth” given that Kabila had in fact appointed Felix Tshisekedi as his successor.

We expect Pope Francis to remind us that elections must be free and transparent, free from corruption and human trafficking.

To avoid paralysis and to see the major Western powers recognize Tshisekedi, the DRC bishops accepted the arrival of the new president. Thanks to this failure, some have not hesitated to say that the church in the DRC has undoubted authority but little power.

With elections nearing the end of the year, some want Pope Francis to send a clear message. “We expect him to remember that elections should be free and transparent without corruption and human trafficking,” Mr. Willie Ngumbi admits. But others are more skeptical that the Pope can make such an appeal. “This would discredit the current president, who was not recognized by the clergy at first… But time has passed and the church and the government are now trying to be constructive, because the problems are big,” the diplomat nuances.

Find the correct words

The pope will also have to find the right words to encourage the Catholic Church, which faces strong competition from the rise of evangelical Christians. The Vatican estimates that 22% of the Congolese population is Protestant, and 19% is Evangelical and Pentecostal. Admittedly, the number of Catholics continues to grow, but now at a slower rate than the total population of the country.

In his 2018 IFRI note on the Congolese Church, Laurent Larcher already warned: “Africa is a continent where the Catholic Church must demonstrate its determination and effectiveness in the defense of social justice. youth movements believe they have failed in this area: unless they consider it too cowardly. »


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