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ROME – After a deadly attack on a Pentecostal church in northeastern Congo killed nearly 20 people over the weekend, Pope Francis has conveyed his sorrow and closeness to the families of the dead and wounded.

In a Jan. 17 telegram addressed to Reverend Andre Bokundoa-Bo-Likabe, President of the Church of Christ in Congo, and signed by Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope said he “learned with sadness of the attack against a Pentecostal Church in Kasindi which caused the death of innocents.”

Pope Francis assured the families most directly impacted by the violence of his “compassion and closeness,” and entrusted the dead to God’s mercy, praying that “the affected may find consolation and confidence in God, invoking on them the gift of peace.”

On Sunday the northeastern town of Kasindi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was rocked by an explosion at the Pentecostal Church of Christ parish, which has so far left at least 17 people dead and dozens of others wounded.

A suspected terrorist attack, the bombing took place during a Sunday service in an area rife with conflict along the Congo’s border with Uganda.

Authorities believe the attack was likely carried out by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an armed group active in Congo that has pledged allegiance to ISIS, which claimed responsibility for the attack several hours after.

Born out of an uprising in Uganda, the ADF has been based in the Congo since the late 1990s. They pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2019 and are accused of killing hundreds of villagers in continuous raids over the past two years.

Both Congolese and Ugandan forces have launched a campaign against the ADF in Kasindi, leading local authorities to believe the attack was in retaliation for losses they had recently suffered. Despite the efforts of Congo and Uganda’s armies, ADF attacks have increased over the past year, with some 370 civilians killed and hundreds more abducted since last April.

The attack is a further illustration of just how unstable the security situation is in Congo, where Pope Francis is slated to visit at the end of this month.

Francis will travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo from Jan. 31-Feb. 3 as part of a two-leg journey that will also take him to South Sudan for an ecumenical visit alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland.

He had to postpone the trip last summer due to a persistent knee problem which has often confined him to a wheelchair.

Pope Francis will visit only the capital city of Kinshasa during his visit, whereas the initial program for the visit last summer also included a stop in the eastern city of Goma to meet with victims of the country’s decades-long armed conflict. That stop was cut due to an uptick in fighting in the region, leading to further security concerns as the pope’s departure approaches.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen