By Elise Ann Allen, Special to The Tablet
ROME — On Tuesday, Pope Francis will set out on his fifth trip to Africa, bringing a much-needed message of peace and consolation to people ravaged by years of conflict in the war-torn nations of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
Originally set to take place last July but postponed due to the pope’s ongoing knee problems, which have at times confined him to the use of a cane and a wheelchair, the trip will take place Jan. 31-Feb. 5.
It will mark Pope Francis’ 40th international trip, and his fifth to Africa, following a 2015 visit to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic, a 2017 visit to Egypt, and separate trips to Morocco and Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mauritius in 2019.
Pope Francis will first stop in Kinshasa, Congo, Jan. 31-Feb. 3, and will then join Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Rev. Iain Greenshields, for an ecumenical visit to Juba, South Sudan, from Feb. 3-5.
The trip holds important significance not only because Africa is currently home to some 20% of the world’s Catholics, with the percentage rising, but Congo and South Sudan are infamous for the armed conflicts that have been plaguing both nations for decades and which are still raging in certain parts of each country.
Pope Francis’ visit will be the first papal trip to the Congo in nearly 40 years, after trips made by Pope John Paul II in 1980 and 1985.
One of the world’s most lengthy and deadly conflicts, the war in the sprawling and mineral-rich Congo has been raging for some 30 years and has left some six million people dead, with an additional 4.5 million displaced from their homes.
During a few recent years in particular, fear and insecurity have grown across Congo, with a 14,000-strong U.N.-backed multilateral peacekeeping mission, deployed in the DRC since 1999, under fire for failing to ensure adequate protection for the populace from the more than 120 armed groups active in the country, some of which hold ties to the Islamic State.
In November, fresh fighting in the country’s eastern region, where most of the violence is concentrated, left dozens dead and some 400,000 more people displaced as fighting again escalated between Congolese soldiers and the infamous M23 rebel group.
Both the M23, which was formed around a decade ago and is the most prominent of the rebel groups, and the Congolese army accused one other of igniting the clashes that led to the crisis.
In response to that uptick in fighting, Kenyan military forces were deployed to join the Congolese army in their efforts to quash resistance from rebel groups, including M23, who are seeking to take control of Congo.
Congo’s conflict is also having regional implications, straining the country’s relationship with Rwanda, which has accused Congo of backing the M23 rebels, while M23 claims that it is defending the interests of ethnic Tutsis living in the Congo against Hutu militias.
Pope Francis, who has made frequent pleas for peace in Congo and has organized special prayer and fasting initiatives for an end to the violence plaguing the country, has long desired to visit the country in a bid to foster peace and urge government leaders to do more to end the fighting.
After his arrival in Kinshasa Tuesday, Pope Francis will meet with the DRC’s president Felix Tshisekedi, who has held office since January 2019.
The next day, Pope Francis will hold a public Mass and will meet with victims of violent conflict in the eastern region of the DRC before meeting with representatives of various charities working on the frontlines to provide relief and humanitarian aid.
When the trip to Congo and South Sudan was announced last July, before it was postponed, the pope’s itinerary included a brief stop in the eastern Congolese city of Goma, near the border with Rwanda, where he was originally supposed to meet victims of the war, and where much of the fighting is concentrated.
However, an escalation in fighting over the past few months meant the stop in Goma had to be removed from the itinerary due to security concerns.
On Thursday, the pope will meet with young people and catechists and will then hold a prayer event with priests, deacons, and religious in Congo before holding a private meeting with the country’s Jesuits. He will meet with Congolese bishops the next day, before flying to Juba.
Speaking at a media roundtable on the significance of the papal visit, Congolese priest Father Anselme Ludiga of the Diocese of Kalemie-Kirungu and former pastor of Saint Jean Marie Vianney Parish in Kala, who is currently studying in Rome, said the Catholic Church holds significant weight in Congo, so the pope’s words and deeds will be carefully watched and listened to by the country’s leaders.
Whenever politicians speak out about an issue, “we immediately see the bishops’ conference,” Father Ludiga said, saying the conference “must in some sense approve because the government is waiting for what the bishops’ conference says.”
In this sense, Father Ludiga said he believes that “something can change” due to the pope’s visit, “this is certain, but goodwill of the government is needed.”
“The presence of the pope will be considered a figure of mediation,” he said, calling the visit “a message of peace for us” that is free of political interests.
Pope Francis will be the first-ever pope to visit South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011, making it one of the world’s youngest countries.
What is notable about this visit is not only that he’ll be the first pope to ever travel to the country, but it will be an ecumenical visit alongside two other prominent church leaders: Archbishop Welby and Rev. Greenshields.
South Sudan’s various Christian communities enjoy close collaboration both at the local level and at the level of the South Sudan Council of Churches, which has long been engaged in the country’s peace process.
Conflict in South Sudan broke out shortly after it won its independence in July 2011, with nationwide celebrations quickly deteriorating into internal bickering and infighting fueled by tribal divides among top government officials.
In December 2013, war broke out along tribal lines among members of the Presidential Guard, with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, a Catholic and member of the Dinka tribe, accusing his vice president, Riek Machar, who belongs to the rival Nuer tribe, of attempting to stage a coup.
Machar, while denying the allegations, fled abroad and led the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO) in clashes against Kiir and his own Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
The conflict quickly spiraled out of control, leading to one of the world’s most serious humanitarian crises, with over 400,000 people killed and roughly 8 million reliant on humanitarian aid, most of whom are displaced.
Several attempts at a peace agreement have been made over the years, with an initial agreement in 2014 falling apart and a 2015 “Compromise Peace Agreement” leading to Machar’s return to Juba and his reinstatement as vice president.
However, fighting quickly broke out again, prompting Machar to flee to the surrounding Equatoria region. At the same time, several opposition groups emerged and unleashed their own spate of violence throughout the country.
In 2018, another power-sharing peace agreement was struck, resulting in Kiir and Machar forming a coalition government in January 2020. However, the agreement still has not been fully implemented, and fighting continues at the local level.
Pope Francis has repeatedly advocated for peace in South Sudan, and with the help of the Sant’Egidio Community — one of the so-called “new movements” in the church dedicated to social justice — he hosted Kiir and Machar as well as opposition leaders at the Vatican for a special retreat in 2019, during which he bent down on his knees and kissed their feet, asking them to make peace.
While most violence has stopped since then, there is still intermittent fighting in local communities, much of which is linked to land or tribal disputes that have turned deadly due to the ease of accessing military-grade weapons.
Speaking at the media roundtable, South Sudanese Father Alfred Mahmoud Ambaro of the Diocese of Tombura-Yambio, pastor of Maria Help of Christians parish in Tombura, thanked Pope Francis for his visit, saying, “He is the father of the suffering people in the world.”
“He always speaks for us, we are consoled by his words,” he said, saying the pope’s frequent appeals for unity and peace are “very important” for the people, and “we are very happy about the pope’s trip.”
Pope Francis will arrive in South Sudan on Feb. 3, where he will be joined by Archbishop Welby and Rev. Greenshields. He will hold separate private meetings with Kiir and Machar after landing and will then give an address to the country’s civil authorities.
The next day, the pope will meet with bishops and with priests, deacons, religious, and seminarians in the country before holding a private meeting with Jesuits in South Sudan. He will then join Archbishop Welby and Rev. Greenshields in meeting with a group of people displaced by the country’s conflict, after which they will hold an ecumenical prayer.
Pope Francis will celebrate Mass on Sunday before leaving Juba and returning to Rome. Both Archbishop Welby and Rev. Greenshields will join him on his return flight.
In a recent statement ahead of Pope Francis’ visit, Bishop Christian Carlassare of Rumbek — who was installed last year after being shot shortly after his appointment in 2021 — stressed the importance of forgiveness in moving forward.
“The social fabric of our country will not be rebuilt by those who foment hatred and resentment, but by the people who identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of marginalization and division, and act instead by lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good,” he said.
To do this, Bishop Carlassare said, requires “personal self-giving in order to forgive others, to make a change and contribute toward a community of peace.
“No one is really open to constructive dialogue unless they are open to that unconditional disarmament of the heart which is called forgiveness, and only those who really forgive can actually work for peace,” he said, saying peacebuilding is “a steep and long path” that requires the commitment of everyone at all levels of society.