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KINSHASA – Pope Francis kicked off a six-day visit to Africa Tuesday with a harsh condemnation of the violent colonialist history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the greedy exploitation of the African continent’s vast resources by wealthy global elites.
“Hands off Africa!” he insisted at one point, addressing global political and financial centers of power.
Speaking to civil authorities after his arrival in Kinshasa Tuesday, the pope lamented the ongoing conflict tearing the country apart and said “it is a tragedy that these lands, and more generally the whole African continent, continue to endure various forms of exploitation.”
Over the years, political exploitation led to “an ‘economic colonialism’ that was equally enslaving,” he said, saying that because of this, the Congo, “massively plundered, has not benefited adequately from its immense resources.”
Comparing Congo to a diamond, the jewel for which the country is most famed, and the violent, slave-like exploitation that has given Congolese rocks the unsavory nickname, “blood diamonds,” Francis said greed has poisoned the country and “smeared its diamonds with blood.”
He criticized the economically advanced world for closing “its eyes, ears and mouth” to the darker realities in Congo, saying the country and Africa as a whole “deserve to be respected and listened to.”
“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa!” he said, saying, “Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.”
Pope Francis voiced hope that going into the future, Africa would be “the protagonist of its own destiny” and that the world would acknowledge “the catastrophic things that were done over the centuries to the detriment of the local peoples, and not forget this country and this continent.”
“May Africa, the smile and hope of the world, count for more,” he said.
Pope Francis landed in the DRC capital of Kinshasa Tuesday as part of a two-stage journey that will also take him to South Sudan, where he will make an ecumenical visit alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Reverent Iain Greenshields.
Francis’s trip, his fifth to the African continent and his third to Sub-Saharan Africa, marks the first papal visit to the DRC since John Paul II’s visits in 1980 and 1985, and it will be the first-ever visit to South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011.
He was originally slated to make the trip last summer, but it was postponed due to the pope’s ongoing knee pain, which since last May has often confined him to the use of a wheelchair or a cane. He is expected to use a wheelchair throughout much of his trip this week.
Africa’s second largest country and the world’s eleventh largest nation overall, the Congo is a majority Catholic nation with a history of violent colonialist rule, rampant exploitation and for decades has been subject to a bloody conflict that has left millions dead and displaced, and which continues to ravage the country’s eastern region.
An estimated six million people have died and some 4.5 million others have been forced from their homes in the past 30 years of fighting.
Violence continues to this day, mostly in clashes between the Congolese army and roughly 120 rebel groups, some of which hold ties to the Islamic State, in eastern Congo. In 2021, Italy’s former ambassador to the DRC was killed in an ambush attack by rebels near the eastern city of Goma, and earlier this month an attack on a Pentecostal church in the eastern town of Kasindi left at least 20 dead.
Pope Francis’s original itinerary last summer included a stop in Goma to visit with victims of the DRC conflict, however, that visit was canceled due to security concerns after an escalation of fighting in the area. The victims of the conflict will now visit him in Kinshasa.
In brief comments to reporters aboard the papal plane en route to the DRC, the pontiff referred to the missed stop: “I wanted to go to Goma too, but it wasn’t possible because of security. You can’t do everything,” he said.
In his speech, Francis said the conflict ravaging Congo is “like a blow to the stomach” that has left the country “gasping for breath.”
Calling the Congolese people a “diamond of creation,” he said the most important wealth that Congo has is “the spiritual wealth present within your hearts. For it is from hearts that peace and development are born, because, with God’s help, men and women are capable of justice and of forgiveness, of concord and reconciliation.”
Francis said a diplomacy “that is more authentically human” is needed in Congo, where people are prioritized over profit, and their growth and development placed ahead of expansionist ideals.
He praised ongoing peace talks between Congolese and Kenyan authorities, as well as the leaders of several rebel groups, the most prominent of which is the M23 group, which continues to engage in fierce clashes with the Congolese army in the country’s eastern provinces.
These talks “need to be sustained by concrete deeds, and commitments should be maintained,” he said, and thanked the organizations helping the local population “not merely through handouts but through projects aimed at an integral development.”
The pope pointed to Congo’s history of cultural pluralism and condemned tribalist instincts, saying the “polyhedron” character of the country must be maintained while “avoiding any form of regression to tribalism and hostility.”
“A partisan spirit that stubbornly promotes one’s own ethnic group or particular interests, thus nurturing spirals of hatred and violence, is detrimental to everyone, since it blocks the necessary ‘chemistry of the whole,’” he said.
Speaking of the role that civil authorities play in the country, Pope Francis said those holding office must operate “with crystalline clarity,” and must view their work as an act of service to society.
In a blow to various forms of corruption, the pope said “Power is meaningful only if it becomes a form of service. How important it is that civic responsibilities be carried out in this spirit, avoiding authoritarianism, the quest for quick profit” and the temptation of greed.
Francis also called for “free, transparent and credible elections,” scheduled for later this year, and said women, young people, and marginalized groups ought to be given more of a role in the peace process.
He asked that “the common good and people’s security be pursued, rather than personal or group interests,” and that greater attention be given to the millions of refugees and displaced persons.
Condemning the practice of bribery and imposing political pressure, he asked that “no one be manipulated, much less bought, by those who would foment violence in the country, and exploit it in order to make shameful business deals. This leads only to discredit and disgrace, together with death and misery.”
“The darkness of injustice and corruption” is often what obscures what is good in a society, he said, and stressed the importance of promoting law and equity, and of “combatting impunity and the manipulation of laws and information.”
Pope Francis also condemned the practice of child labor and the exploitation of women and girls, and stressed the importance of education, which he said is “the path to the future, the road to take for achieving the complete freedom of this country and of the African continent,” and as such, requires immediate investment.
He stressed the need to pursue peace in Congo and the development of its natural resources, calling for “an ample and fruitful cooperation that can permit an effective intervention without imposing external models that are more useful to those who help than to who are helped.”
Pope Francis closed his speech offering his encouragement to the people of Congo and urging them “to undertake a courageous and inclusive social renewal.”
On Wednesday, his first full day in Kinshasa, the pope will meet with victims of Congo’s armed conflict in the east as well as members of charitable organizations who assist them and provide frontline aid.