Pope Francis, in Africa, urges end to cycle of violence in Congo
The pounding church music, booming choir and exuberant crowd of around one million welcoming Pope Francis for an open-air papal mass on Wednesday in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, felt at a world far removed from the violence ravaging the east of the country, where dozens of competing armed groups loot villages, plunder resources and heighten tensions with Rwanda across the border.
But it was not far from the spirit of the pope or the flock that had come to see him.
“There are many, many problems in Goma,” Edouard said. Lobanga, 38, referring to the main city in the besieged eastern Congo. “Many, many terrorists. They kill women, kill children, kill girls.
Pope Francis began his second day in Congo, as part of a six-day trip that will also take him to South Sudan, focusing on this often overlooked violence, seeking to bring some peace to a majority country. Christian who knew little of it.
He directly called on warring groups to lay down their arms, forgive each other, and let a huge nation scarred by bloody conflict and looting begin to heal.
“To all of you in this country who call yourself Christians but indulge in violence,” Francis said, “the Lord says to you, ‘Lay down your arms, embrace mercy,’” adding that God “knows the wounds of your country, your people, your land.These are aching wounds, continually infected with hatred and violence, while the medicine of justice and the balm of hope never seem to arrive.
Francis sought to be that balm and to bring, as he said in his address on Tuesday, “the closeness, affection and consolation of the whole Catholic Church.” He arrived Wednesday morning at Kinshasa airport grounds, riding in his popemobile and waving to a large and choppy sea of onlookers, a turnout the pope has not seen in years. Some cheered him on the wings of planes. Long rows of children in white communion dresses were dancing. Many wore shiny, flowing shirts, hats and dresses bearing the face of Francis.
But escalating fighting and violence in the eastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri forced the pope to abandon his initial plan to visit Goma, far away in a huge country of about 80 times the size of Belgium, its former colonizer.
Instead, some of the victims of this violence will come to see Francis on Wednesday, during a private meeting at the papal nunciature in Kinshasa.
Francis already set an urgent and angry tone on Tuesday when he called the decades of horrors in the Congo a “forgotten genocide” perpetrated by generations of exploiters, looters and power-hungry groups who had preyed on the few 100 million people in the country, many of them members of his herd.
Sitting alongside Francis at the National Palace on Tuesday, the country’s President, Felix Tshisekedi, accused the world of forgetting the Congo, plundering its natural resources and complicit in the atrocities of the East through “inaction and the silence”.
“In addition to armed groups,” he said, “foreign powers hungry for minerals in our basement are committing cruel atrocities with the direct and cowardly support of our neighbor Rwanda, making security the first and the biggest challenge for the government”.
Mr Tshisekedi’s comments laid bare not only rising tensions with Rwanda, but also violence in the country’s three eastern provinces that has rocked Congo, Africa’s second largest country.
About 120 militant groups operate in the three provinces, according to the Kivu Security Tracker, which documents human rights abuses in the region, with many of these groups ransacking villages, killing residents with guns and machetes and attacking medical centres.
The unrest has displaced more than 521,000 people since March, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and many more have fled across the border into Uganda.
The militants attacked the most vulnerable. Last year, dozens of displaced people, including children, were massacred with machetes in a makeshift camp in Ituri province. And even after the groups leave specific areas, many displaced people do not want to return home, the United Nations said.
The attacks have intensified despite the presence of an 18,000 strong UN peacekeeping force in the area. Local people have repeatedly protested the peacekeepers, insisting they leave the country for failing to protect them from the militants.
Among the deadliest groups vying for power and influence in the mineral-rich eastern region are the Allied Democratic Forces. Created in the 1990s in opposition to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the group has killed hundreds of civilians, according to the United Nations, and was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in 2021. Uganda and Congo are waging a joint operation against the group for over a year now.
But the organization at the heart of the escalation of violence over the past year is M23, or the March 23 Movement. The Congolese government, the United Nations and the United States have all accused Rwanda of supporting the group – a charge that Rwanda has repeatedly denied.
The M23 have stepped up their attacks on the Congolese government for failing to honor a 2009 agreement that would have integrated them into the army and for marginalizing people who speak Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s official language.
As attacks escalated, the M23 took control of towns and villages, and rights groups accused the group of carrying out executions, indiscriminately bombarding civilian and military areas, and killing returnees. home in search of food.
The resurgence of M23 has heightened tensions between Congo and Rwanda and raised the threat of all-out war in Africa’s Great Lakes region.
It was just such a result that Francis seemed keen to avoid on Wednesday.
“Brothers and sisters,” he said in his homily. “We are called to be missionaries of peace, and that will bring us peace. It’s a decision we have to make. We need to find room in our hearts for everyone; believing that ethnic, regional, social and religious differences are secondary and not obstacles; that the others are our brothers and sisters, members of the same human community.
But the words of Francis should stop disturbing the momentum. Congo and Rwanda have accused each other of bombing each other’s territory. Last month, Rwanda said it fired on a Congolese plane that violated its airspace, a charge Congo has denied. Last year, Rwanda killed a Congolese soldier it said had fired on its officers in a border area, prompting Congo to close its border.
Congolese officials have accused Rwanda of wanting to plunder their country’s mineral resources. Demonstrations erupted in eastern towns, with many citizens castigating Rwandan aggression. Rising hostilities in eastern Congo have also led to an increase in hate speech and discrimination against Kinyarwanda speakers in Congo, the United Nations has warned.
Several rounds of peace talks have taken place in Angola and Kenya, but no progress has yet been reported towards resolving the conflict.
Francis sought on Wednesday to give impetus to these peace efforts.
“Together we believe that Jesus always gives us the opportunity to be forgiven and to start over,” he said. “but also the strength to forgive oneself, others and history.”