ROME – Pope Francis will further cement his legacy as an advocate for the suffering and marginalized of the world this week as he heads to sub-Saharan Africa for the third time, fulfilling a longtime goal of visiting the war-ravaged nations of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

Plagued by conflicts that have torn them apart over years and even decades, these nations have long been priorities for the pope, who was slated to visit last July. That trip was postponed due to Francis’s ongoing knee troubles, which, since last May, have largely confined him to a wheelchair or the use of a cane.

In what will be his 40th trip abroad, Pope Francis will visit Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from Jan. 31-Feb. 3, and then he’ll make an ecumenical visit to Juba in South Sudan from Feb. 3-5 alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Reverend lain Greenshields.

Speaking after his Angelus address Sunday, Pope Francis thanked civil and ecclesial authorities for their preparations for his visit, saying both Congo and South Sudan “have suffered greatly from lengthy conflicts.”

“The Democratic Republic of the Congo, especially in the east of the country, suffers from armed clashes and exploitation. South Sudan, wracked by years of war, longs for an end to the constant violence that forces many people to be displaced and to live in conditions of great hardship,” he said.

Noting that he will be joined in South Sudan by Welby and Greenshields, the pope said that, “Together, as brothers, we will make an ecumenical pilgrimage of peace, to entreat God and men to bring an end to the hostilities and for reconciliation.”

In his own statement Sunday, Welby said the trip is “a pilgrimage of peace,” and that he, the pope, and Greenshields are coming “to listen to and amplify the cries of the South Sudanese people, who have suffered so much and continue to suffer” from war, natural disaster, and a crippling humanitarian crisis.

“We come as brothers in Christ to worship together and witness to the God who reconciles us. The communities of South Sudan have a legacy of powerful witness to their faith,” Welby said, adding, “We hope to build on and reenergize that legacy.”

When the trip was announced last year, Francis was also supposed to pay a visit to the eastern city of Goma in the DRC, where he was to meet with victims of the country’s violent conflict, and where much of the fighting is concentrated.

However, when the trip was rescheduled, that stop was eliminated due to security concerns related to a new escalation of fighting in the area.

This will mark the 20th papal visit to Africa and will be Pope Francis’s fifth time traveling to the continent, following a visit to Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic in 2015, Egypt in 2017, and separate trips to Morocco and later to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius in 2019.

In addition to being a deeply symbolic visit due to the violence plaguing both nations, it will also be historic, as Pope Francis will be the first pope to visit the DRC in nearly 40 years, after Pope John Paul II’s visits in 1980 and 1985, and he will be the first-ever pope to visit South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011.

Around 20 percent of the world’s Catholics currently live in Africa, with the percentage increasing quickly in one of the youngest areas of the world, where youth represent the bulk of the population, making Africa an important destination not only in terms of promoting peace and stability, but the future of the Church itself.

A history of exploitation, conflict, and poverty

Both Congo and South Sudan have violent histories marked by years of bloody conflict and ethnic fighting, poverty, and enduring humanitarian crises that have left millions displaced, hungry, and lingering in refugee camps with no clear end to their misery in sight.

The main setting of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, which details sailor Charles Marlow’s journey through Congo as an ivory transporter who recounts to readers the horrors of Western colonialism and the violent exploitation of native lands and populations at the hands of those who advanced it, the expansive and mineral-rich DRC has a long history of violence.

From the harsh rule of Belgian King Leopold II, who established the Congo Free State in 1885, brutally seizing swaths of the Congo’s territory as his own personal possession, up through its independence in 1960, and until now, the DRC has been a hotbed of violence and conflict that has prevented the country from developing into the powerhouse that it could be given its vast natural resources.

In one of the longest and most drawn-out conflicts in the world, for the past 30 years a full-on war has been raging in the Congo, concentrated mostly in the country’s east, which has left more than six million people dead and has forced 4.5 million people from their homes.

A UN-backed multilateral stabilization mission, deployed since 1999 with some 14,000 troops, has been condemned for what critics say is a failure to provide adequate protection against the more than 120 armed groups active throughout the country, some of which hold ties to the Islamic State.

A recent escalation in fighting that began last fall has so far forced some 400,000 more people to flee their homes, and has caused dozens more deaths, with the bulk of fighting happening between the Congolese army and the M23 rebel group, which formed around a decade ago and is the most prominent of the rebel groups.

The conflict is having regional repercussions, as Kenya in November deployed soldiers to assist the Congolese army in their fight against M23, and it has also strained the DRC’s relations with Rwanda, which has accused the Congo of backing M23, while M23 has claimed that it is defending the interests of ethnic Tutsis living in the Congo against Hutu militias.

Years of conflict in Congo has meant that swaths of the population live in poverty, surviving on under $2 a day, and millions are experiencing hunger as the government faces ongoing security threats and corruption.

Father Anselme Ludiga, a Congolese priest from the Diocese of Kalemie-Kirungu and former pastor of Saint Jean Marie Vianney parish in Kala who is currently studying in Rome, said suffering in his home country is still rampant, with millions displaced, countless women being raped and numerous children either killed or taken as child soldiers, while armed groups pillage the land for resources.

Against this backdrop, Ludiga, who spoke during a media roundtable ahead of the pope’s visit, said the papal trip “is seen as a message of peace.”

At nearly 40 years from the last visit of a pope, “at this point the papal visit is seen as a message of peace,” and the theme, “all reconciled in Christ,” is a sign that it will also be “a blessed visit,” Ludiga said.

In South Sudan, after a lengthy war with Sudan that resulted in their declaring independence in July 2011, violent conflict erupted just two years later, in December 2013, between different factions of the government, who were divided along tribal lines, throwing the country into full-on war.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, a Catholic and a member of the prominent Dinka tribe, accused his vice president, Riek Machar, a member of the rival Nuer tribe, of attempting to stage a coup, and while Machar denied the allegation, he fled and led an armed resistance.

An attempted ceasefire in 2014 failed to stop the fighting, and likewise, a 2015 “Compromise Peace Agreement” that saw Macher’s return to Juba and his reinstatement as vice president, also fell through, prompting Machar to again flee as his opposition forces continued to fight. Several other opposition groups then popped up, furthering the violence and bloodshed.

Currently, poverty and hunger are rampant as a result of the conflict, with around one million people experiencing high food insecurity in conflict areas, and millions of children lack education.

In 2018, an official peace agreement based on power-sharing was struck, resulting in a new coalition government being formed by Kiir and Machar in 2020.

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 much of the violence stopped with the signing of that agreement, as more and more opposition forces added their signatures to the accord, there is still fighting throughout South Sudan at the local level, mainly related to land or tribal disputes, or hooligans with easy access to military weapons.

However, while the peace agreement continues to hold, it has yet to be fully implemented, with several requirements – such as the creation of a unified army and the holding of national elections – yet to come to fruition.

Speaking to Crux, Paolo Impagliazzo, secretary general of the Sant’Egidio Community, said elections have been pushed back another two years, “because the country is not ready for elections.”

“Society is almost ready,” he said, saying the government first needs to establish “the rule of law” and form a unified army, and a “nation-building effort is needed” in order for the country to be unified enough to hold elections.

“While society is ready, of course the government and the country need to establish a network between state and country, state presence all over South Sudan,” Impagliazzo said, stressing the importance of striking the right balance when it comes to unifying efforts, such as the creation of a national army.

Balance in this regard, he said, “means that all the groups that are present in South Sudan must be present in the army in order to have an inclusive body representing all of the minorities in South Sudan.”

Sant’Egidio, he said, is attempting to help achieve this balance by facilitating political dialogue between the national government and opposition groups that have yet to adhere to the 2018 peace agreement.

“This political dialogue is aimed at reducing the violence, but increasing the inclusivity of the peace process. It’s very important that everybody in South Sudan, each ethnic group, each community, it is important for them to be represented in the government, in the political arena,” he said, saying the papal visit could influence the situation.

“There is a lot of hope about the visit and many people believe the visit will change the situation,” Impagliazzo said, saying things won’t change overnight, but “it’s a process,” and the various churches in South Sudan are playing “a very instrumental role to bring about peace and stability.”

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