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YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Catholic Bishops in the Democratic Republic of Congo have called for reconciliation and peace in the country ahead of the apostolic visit of Pope Francis early next year.

Francis is scheduled to arrive in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, on January 31 for a five-day visit that will also take him to South Sudan.

In Congo, the pontiff will meet with administrative, religious and civil society leaders, as well as victims of the continuing violence taking place in the East of the country.

As part of preparations for the pope’s visit, the country’s bishops’ conference has urged “each Christian to carry out acts of mercy, reconciliation, building of peace and brotherhood.”

In a December 15 statement, the President of the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo, Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa of Kisangani, described the pope’s impending visit as “good news” and launched “an urgent appeal to the Catholic faithful, to men and women of good will to remobilize themselves to give the Pastor of the Universal Church, Successor of the Apostle Peter, a welcome worthy of his rank.”

He said the meeting with the pope “is a moment of grace that requires a good spiritual preparation. This is why CENCO invites, from now on, all the faithful to carry this great ecclesial and national appointment in prayer.”

“It asks all parishes and religious communities to take up the prayer prepared for this intention at the end of each Eucharistic celebration, until the end of the Holy Father’s visit. It also asks that adoration of the Blessed Sacrament be resumed every first Thursday of the month and that the Rosary be recited every Saturday,” Utembi said.

“Furthermore, the involvement of each and every one of us in the material organization for the success of this ecclesial event of such magnitude is strongly encouraged.”

The bishops also called on Christians and people of good will to contribute both materially and financially to the success of the event, and invoked the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and other saints so the visit records a resounding success.

For a country battered by decades of violence, the pope’s visit is seen as a strong symbol of hope.

Congo’s Nobel Peace Laureate, Denis Mukwege, had a private conversation with the Pope during a recent visit to the Vatican in which they spoke at length about the crisis afflicting the country’s East.

“This visit (to the Vatican) was for me a special grace, an honor to have met a man of faith, a man of peace, a person who works for peace, justice and inclusion throughout the world and in the particular context today with multiple crises. His visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo is therefore a strong signal,” Mukwege told Vatican Radio December 9.

He said the pope’s visit to the DRC “shows the hope and solidarity that the pope shows for our people, for a people that has been bruised for over 25 years.”

“What we are expecting is that his presence will contribute to raising the awareness of world opinion on the drama that the Congolese are living today,” Mukwege said. “We also hope that through his prayers, his voice that carries, that he can help to put an end to this tragedy, which unfortunately is not talked about here in Europe.”

Various groups of rebels have been fighting government forces in the east of the country, with authorities accusing Rwanda, and to some extent, Uganda, of supporting the rebels, and using the resultant insecurity as cover to steal minerals.

Catholic Bishops recently urged Christians to take to the streets to protest the insecurity, and what they consider as attempts by the country’s neighbors to “balkanize” Congo.

Bishop Sébastien-Joseph Muyengo of Uvira told Crux that part of the problem has to do with state absence in the region.

“In my humble opinion, the State must first of all be resurrected or reborn from its ashes. Everything that is happening in the East of our country is a sign of the absence of the State,” he said.

He expressed concern that a majority of the soldiers in the Congolese army are foreigners, coming mostly from the same countries that support the rebels.

“The Congolese do not understand this business of entrusting our security to countries that wage war against us,” he told Crux.

Mukwege said he believes that the prophetic word of the Church can make a big difference in restoring peace to the country.

“A Church that is silent when people are suffering is a Church that no longer has its place,” he said. “And I think that the most important role of the Church is to suffer with the people who suffer. I think that the pope’s visit is part of this logic of going to suffer with the Congolese people who are suffering. And so it is the prophetic voice of the Church that can make a great difference.”