Pope Francis delivers his Urbi et Orbi message and gives Easter blessing following Easter Sunday Mass on April 12, 2020 behind closed doors at St. Peter's Basilica in The Vatican, during the country's lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 infection, caused by the novel coronavirus. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / POOL / AFP)
Pope Francis embarks on his fifth visit to Africa on Tuesday, flying to the Democratic Republic of Congo and then South Sudan to plead for peace in the two violence-plagued nations.
Thousands of well-wishers are expected at Kinshasa’s Ndjili international airport to greet the 86-year-old pontiff’s plane, which is due to land around 3:00 pm local time (1400 GMT).
It is the first time since 1985 that a pope has visited DRC, a desperately poor country of close to 100 million people, 40 percent of whom are Catholic.
The six-day trip to DRC and South Sudan was originally planned for July 2022, but postponed due to the pontiff’s knee pain that has forced him in recent months to use a wheelchair.
Security concerns were also said to play a role, and the Vatican scrapped an original plan to visit Goma in DR Congo’s east, where dozens of armed groups operate.
“I greet with affection those beloved peoples who await me,” Pope Francis said after his Angelus prayer at St Peter’s Square on Sunday.
“These lands, situated in the centre of the great African continent, have suffered greatly from lengthy conflicts.”
He lamented “armed clashes and exploitation” in DR Congo, and said South Sudan, “wracked by years of war, longs for an end to the constant violence”.
Despite its vast mineral wealth, some two-thirds of DRC’s population live on less than $2.15 a day, while violence plagues the eastern provinces.
The Tutsi-led armed group M23, which Kinshasa alleges is backed by neighbouring Rwanda, has been conquering large swaths of territory in North Kivu province.
The region has also seen a wave of deadly attacks blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group the Islamic State claims as an affiliate, including a bomb blast at a Pentecostal church this month that killed 14 people.