Pope Francis is visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan this week to deliver a message of peace and reconciliation to two countries hit by conflict.
The pontiff will start his trip on Tuesday in the Congolese capital Kinshasa, where he will stay until Friday before heading to Juba, the capital of South Sudan.
The leaders of the Anglican Church and the Church of Scotland will join the pope on the second leg of the trip.
The trip will be Francis’s 40th abroad since he was elected the head of the Catholic Church in 2013. It will be his fifth visit to Africa.
Why is the pope visiting the DRC?
The Vatican’s envoy to the Democratic Republic of the Congo has said the trip will remind the world not to ignore decades-long conflicts.
For years, the Central African country has struggled with instability and poverty despite its vast mineral wealth.
“Congo also embodies social injustice, the scandal of underdevelopment and poverty,” said Samuel Pommeret from the nongovernmental organisation CCFD-Terre Solidaire.
It has been a battleground for more than 100 armed groups fighting for control of territory there or using it as a base to launch attacks into some of the DRC’s neighbours, such as Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Rwanda and Uganda.
The best known is M23, which is among the most deadly in North Kivu and Ituri, two eastern mining provinces bordering Rwanda and Uganda. The Congolese government, United Nations experts and the European Union have accused Rwanda of backing the rebels, a charge Kigali denies.
The conflict has displaced half a million people and killed hundreds.
“The pope’s voice will be hugely encouraging for the country but will also be a strong spur to the political classes to resolve the country’s problems,” Mauro Garofalo, head of international relations at the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic social services organisation, told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
Francis will be the first pope to visit the country since 1985, which “could also deliver a message for the economic actors who benefit from these riches”, Pommeret said.
About 45 million people of the DRC’s estimated population of 100 million are Catholics. More than a million people are expected to attend an open-air Mass that Francis is to celebrate on Wednesday at Kinshasa airport.
Why is the pope visiting South Sudan?
The pope has expressed interest in visiting predominantly Christian South Sudan for years, but plans were pushed back due to his health and instability in the country.
The pontiff is expected to deliver an appeal for peace with the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields.
In 2019, the leaders of the Catholic, Anglican and Scottish churches met at the Vatican with South Sudan rivals Riek Machar and Salva Kiir to encourage them to salvage a stalled peace deal signed the year before.
In an act that stunned the world, Francis knelt and kissed the duo’s feet, urging them not to return to conflict after both men had been accused of responsibility for war crimes.
South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, officially split from Sudan in 2011, but civil war erupted two years later, causing 400,000 deaths. The two main sides in the conflict signed a peace deal in 2018, but there are lingering issues.
There are 2.2 million internally displaced people in South Sudan and another 2.3 million have fled the country, according to the UN.
In June, the UN cut food aid to South Sudan because of inadequate funding. Aid organisations said donors had diverted attention to the war in Ukraine. The UN said 7.76 million people, about two-thirds of South Sudan’s population, are likely to face acute food shortages this year.
“This is a very important element in the South Sudanese crisis,” Garofalo said. “The joint work of the Christian churches and denominations can represent an antidote to the ethnicism and political rivalry.”
Are there security concerns?
Security concerns have surrounded the pope’s visit to both countries.
Francis plans to travel to the eastern DRC, where M23 advanced close to the commercial hub of Goma in its latest offensive.
His new itinerary no longer includes Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. The pope will instead meet victims of the conflict while in Kinshasa, where security is not expected to be an issue.
Despite the peace agreement in South Sudan, the country still faces instability as parts of the agreement, including the deployment of a reunified national army, have not yet been implemented.