ROME – During his first visit to Africa, Pope Francis visited Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic. The third nation was at war, waging a civil conflict with ethnic and religious undertones. Despite warnings concerning his safety, the pope had no second thoughts.
“The only thing I am worried about are the mosquitoes,” Francis joked with journalists on the papal plane. He reportedly told his pilot: “I want to go to the Central Africa Republic, and if you can’t manage it, give me a parachute.”
Ever since, Francis hasn’t been afraid of war zones. He went to Colombia while the ink on a treaty that brought an end to a decades-long civil war was still drying. He’d made the peace accord a deal-breaker for his visit.
Later this week he’s going to Myanmar, a country under the microscope of the international community for what its army is doing to the Rohingya Muslim minority.
Yet there are two other countries in conflict he’s spoken about numerous times, that for now, due to security concerns, remain on the wish list: South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
There were several reports, originally fueled by local bishops, of a possible visit to South Sudan this fall. By the pope’s own admission, the outing would have included the head of the Church of England, Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury.
However, the situation on the ground was deemed too unstable, and papal spokesman Greg Burke released a statement on May quashing hopes of the South Sudanese religious leaders, who’d traveled to Rome to invite Francis to the country in late 2016.
In the case of DRC, it was the papal representative in the country, Argentinian Archbishop Luis Mariano Montemayor, who announced that a trip had been put on hold until national elections are held.
“The pope wanted to come. The Holy See has made clear to the Congolese authorities that his visit is conditioned on the organization of the elections which are established by its constitution,” Montemayor said in September.
Since then, the pope has made several appeals for peace in both countries, and will do so again on Thursday, when he’s scheduled to lead a prayer service in St. Peter’s Basilica for these embattled nations.
The ongoing crisis in South Sudan
South Sudan is the world’s newest nation, located in the center of Africa and bordered by six countries. It’s theoretically rich in oil, but following decades of a civil war that ended in 2005, it is also one of the least developed regions on earth.
Over a decade after the war, however, the bloodshed is far from over, as ethnic-related fights are still ongoing.
Half of the country’s population of over 12 million is severely affected by hunger, and people with knowledge of the situation on the ground believe the United Nations will again declare famine in the country in 2018, as was the case in February of this year, despite its fertile lands.
“In South Sudan, people can’t even go out to plant on their fields,” said Nancy McNally, an American currently working in neighboring Kenya for Catholic Relief Services, the international aid agency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“When I was there in March, you couldn’t cross these vast expanses of territory for safety reasons,” she said. McNally said that in many of these territories, there used to be villages full of people working the land. However, all are gone, with only a water well or an abandoned medical clinic remaining as a memory of the life before.
Speaking with Crux, McNally said that despite their poverty and the horrific conflict the South Sudanese have lived through, people there “can be amazingly resourceful.”
CRS’s work is mostly focused in the Jonglei state, in central South Sudan, where they are in “full emergency mode” to support nearly 900,000 people through diverse programs. If peace is ever achieved, they’re ready to put in place developing programming, to support and rebuild the country.
One of the long-term ongoing projects is in a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Awerial county, also in central South Sudan, where CRS is working with groups of fishing associations headed by women.
They’re also working with the Dinka and Nuer tribes in Jonglei state to create irrigation canals and roads to link villages, building cohesion among the communities which, even though they’ve always lived together, hasn’t been a coexistence without some tensions.
“Parts of Jonglei have been so severely affected by the drought and conflict, that there’s nothing else to eat other than bushmeat,” she said.
According to McNally, most of the South Sudanese don’t want to migrate, but rather they want to stay in their country, because they’re “very attached to it.” To illustrate, she told the story of a man she met while there, who had emigrated to Italy and was living there legally, with a work permit. When his country gained its independence, he moved back to open his own business and “help rebuild the country.”
Yet when the war broke again in 2013, he lost everything: the kiosk he’d set up with a generator imported from Italy to charge phones was ransacked and his 50 cattle stolen. Without a dowry, he wasn’t able to marry. He’s in his 50s now, totally bereft, living in an IDP camp.
“Given the choice and the opportunity, this man chose to go back, without hesitation,” McNally said.
The ongoing crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo
DRC is extremely wealthy in natural resources, including diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and zinc. It’s also a vast territory, with a size similar to Western Europe. Yet the country’s resource wealth has benefited foreign companies far more than the close to 80 million people who live there.
Decades of political instability, a lack of infrastructure, corruption and wars have all affected the country’s development. As of 2016, DRC’s level of human development is 176th out of 187 countries, according to the Human Development Index.
Speaking at a press conference in Rome last week, Michel Roy, secretary-general of the papal aid agency Caritas Internationalis, said that while the main causes of the conflict in both countries are political in nature, multinational companies are profiting from “the favorable conditions” of a weakened state in order to exploit the country’s wealth.
He gave the example of the diamond mines in the southern Congolese province of Kasai. Congolese politicians, Roy added, receive kickbacks and “are under the orders of these companies” to keep the conflict alive so they can continue to exploit the country’s vast diamond industry.
“There are also regional interests so that the Congo remains this way, that it doesn’t become strong,” he said, according to Catholic News Service. “A big country with these kinds of resources can become an important country in Africa, like South Africa, like Nigeria.”
The Catholic Church has long played a key role in DRC’s pacification efforts, including mediating in the peace talks between the government and opposition after political violence last December.
In late October, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley visited the African nation, and thanked the prelates for their efforts so far, while at the same time urging them to once again help with the current deadlock.
The agreement signed last year stipulated that President Joseph Kabila would remain in office, but elections would be held before the end of 2017. Yet Congo’s electoral commission has said elections will be held in mid-2019, which again has created chaos in the country.
During her visit, Haley reportedly said that every day that passes without elections, a woman is raped, a child has an unwanted pregnancy, and children are forced to be soldiers.
According to the United Nations, there’s a nationwide use of rape and other forms of sexual violence as a weapon of war. In this country ravaged by over twenty years of conflict, over 1 million women of all ages, from babies to grandmothers, have been raped, most of them by armed groups or militia.
In April, as news continued to arrive of “bloody clashes” in Kasai state, “fighting which drags in victims and displaced persons,” Francis urged some 20,000 faithful at a Mass in the northern Italian city of Carpi “to pray for peace, that the hearts of those behind these crimes do not remain enslaved by hatred and violence.”
Thursday’s prayer service is being organized by “Solidarity with South Sudan” and the Justice and Peace office of male and female religious organizations worldwide. When Francis heard of the initiative, he said he wanted to be personally involved in it.
Christians across the world are invited to pray together on that day and time (5:30 PM Rome time, 11:30 ET) for peace, particularly in South Sudan and in DRC.