Pope apologizes for missing Africa trip, condemns child labor

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ROME – In his first public appearance since a scheduled trip to Africa was postponed due to his troubled knee, Pope Francis apologized to the authorities of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo Sunday, saying he hopes to reschedule the trip as soon as possible.

“I apologize” to Congolese and Sudanese leadership and peoples for having to postpone a trip “that I care so much about,” Francis said Sunday, at the end of his weekly Angelus prayer. He assured the audience that he is receiving medical treatment and hopes to be able to visit these countries soon.

“It is with great disappointment that I have had to make this decision … and I ask your forgiveness,” Francis said. “I feel great regret for having to postpone the trip.”

“Let’s pray together that, with God’s help and medical care, I can be with you as soon as possible … let’s be confident!” the pope said.

The Vatican announced Friday that the pope, following medical advice, would have to postpone the trip. Though he has long suffered from knee pain, it has become more intense in recent months and has forced him to cancel or limit several appointments, including the Easter vigil Mass, which he attended but did not celebrate.

Francis has acknowledged that doctors have told him he needs surgery, but after a bad experience with anesthesia last year during colon surgery, he told the Italian bishops that he would rather resign than undergo another operation.

The visit had been planned for July 2-7. In South Sudan he would have been joined by the Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and the Rev. Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

During the Angelus, Francis also condemned the fact that millions of children around the world are forced to work. His comments were in reference to the UN-sponsored World Day Against Child Labor, which is marked yearly on June 12. The pope called for a commitment from every nation in the world to eliminate “this scourge, so that no child is deprived of his or her fundamental rights and forced or coerced to work. Children exploited for labor is a dramatic reality that challenges us all!”

According to the United Nations, “significant progress” has been made in reducing child labor over the last two decades, but progress has stalled in the past six years, particularly during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, an estimated 160 million children are engaged in child labor, with some being coaxed into working at the age of 5.

As he has been doing in virtually every public appearance since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the pontiff also referred to the war, saying that the people of Ukraine are “always alive in my heart.”

“May the passing of time not cool our grief and concern for those tormented people,” he said. “Please, let us not get used to this tragic reality! Let us always have it in our hearts. Let us pray and fight for peace.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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