KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — The line of cheering humanity stretched for 15 miles, easily more than a million people, elbowing for space wherever they could find it. They poured out of the slum neighborhoods, lining up 10 or 20 deep, some scaling vehicles and buildings and even a roadside median just to get a glimpse of an 86-year-old in a popemobile.
“François,” people screamed.
“At last,” Pope Francis said as he kicked off this long-awaited, once-delayed journey.
Francis’s six-day visit to Africa — first to Congo, then to South Sudan — has no shortage of challenges. The two countries stand out as trouble spots in the wide swath of majority-Christian Africa. Issues that Francis has regularly spoken out against — exploitation by external powers, the proliferation of weapons, environmental plundering — are playing out in both countries in devastating fashion, with violence worsening and peace deals teetering.
But the reception he received here Tuesday was a reminder that Francis — even without the rock-star status of his early years — can still bring a nation to a joyful fervor, particularly one that is heavily Catholic and has long felt overlooked. Congo’s myriad problems cannot be solved by a papal trip, but Francis on Tuesday was offering something else — the chance to have those problems seen.
“We cannot grow accustomed to the bloodshed that has marked this country for decades, causing millions of deaths that remain mostly unknown elsewhere,” the pope said in a late-afternoon address to diplomats and dignitaries at a palace along the Congo River. “What is happening here needs to be known.”
For Francis, the trip has a tinge of urgency. He’s nearing the 10-year mark as pope. He struggles to walk. He was forced to cancel a similar trip last summer because of knee pain. Since then, rebel groups have seized control of more territory in Congo’s east, uprooting a half-million people and forcing the Vatican to cut out a planned stop in that part of the country.
On Tuesday, hours after arriving, Francis described a “vast and luxuriant land” that has suffered in countless ways: from colonialism, warring among ethnic groups, dire health care, forced migration, hunger.
“This country, so immense and full of life, this diaphragm of Africa, struck by violence like a blow to the stomach, has seemed for some time to be gasping for breath,” Francis said.
On several occasions the crowd cheered Francis’s remarks, with some shouting “yes” or “amen,” including when he said that the “church and the pope have confidence in you.”
“They believe in your future, the future that is in your hands,” he said.
This is his fifth trip as pope to Africa, and, relative to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, he has shown far more interest in the continent. That is partly a response to fundamental shifts in the faith, which is shrinking in the West and surging here, despite challenges from Pentecostal and evangelical movements.
African seminary graduates now fill gaps in the European priesthood. And Francis has elevated a new class of African cardinals, diversifying the ranks that will eventually choose his successor.
But the interest in Africa also speaks to Francis’s personal style and the tendency during his pontificate to seek out places he views as overlooked or wrongly on the margins. Again and again as pope, he has sought out places avoided by other leaders: a war zone in the Central African Republic, a migrant camp in Greece, a stone quarry in Madagascar.
On Friday, Francis will fly from Kinshasa to Juba, the South Sudanese capital. Francis has personally invested himself in brokering peace between rival factions there. In 2019, he invited President Salva Kiir and then-rebel leader Riek Machar to a spiritual retreat at the Vatican, kissing the feet of both men.
Now Kiir and Machar are in the same government. But it is barely holding the country together. Continued fighting and year-after-year climate disasters are feeding one of Africa’s biggest refugee crises.
Key aspects of the peace deal haven’t been realized. The government recently denounced peace talks, backed by a Rome-based Catholic social service organization, as a way for opponents to buy time for war.
But before that leg of the trip, Francis will spend some 72 hours in Kinshasa, a city that is emblematic of Africa’s breakneck, often chaotic, growth. On Wednesday, he’ll preside over Mass from a stage erected at an airport, with some reports suggesting that more than a million people might attend. He’ll also meet with victims of violence from the country’s east.
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Congolese say it’s hard to overstate how crucial the church is in a country that has faced more than a century of destabilizing tragedies: colonialist plundering by the Belgians; years of autocracy and embezzlement by former longtime leader Mobutu Sese Seko; ongoing corruption and foreign interests that drain the country of its mineral wealth.
The church tends to step in where the government fails, helping particularly with education and health care. It also worked to oversee the precarious path to 2018 elections, won by Félix Tshisekedi, in Congo’s first democratic transfer of power.
“The poverty is not in itself the problem, it’s the misery,” Kisangani Archbishop Marcel Utembi, president of the Congolese conference of bishops, said in an interview last year. “Unfortunately, the population is living in misery, while the leaders are not playing their role. The church tries to give people at least a minimum standard of life.”
Francis, in his remarks, trained much of his attention on Congo’s economic paradox — that a country with so much natural wealth could be so poor. Some of the world’s biggest economic powers, most notably China, have fought for control of Congo’s deposits of cobalt, used in smartphone batteries and electric vehicles. Francis called it a “tragedy” that Congo, “and more generally the whole African continent, continue to endure various forms of exploitation.”
“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa!” Francis said. “Stop choking Africa. It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered. May Africa be the protagonist of its own destiny.”
Hostilities in the east have flared along the border with Rwanda, raising fears of a regional conflagration that could suck in neighboring nations — a nightmare scenario that echoes the 1998-2002 Congo war, when nine nations were eventually drawn into a conflict that cost about 2 million lives.
Last week, Rwanda fired a missile at a Congolese fighter jet, which managed to land despite being damaged. Rwanda claimed its airspace had been invaded, which Congo denied, describing the shooting as “an act of war.”
A U.N. panel of experts found last year that Rwanda was supporting the M23 rebels — a claim Rwanda strenuously denies but is supported by Congo experts such as Jason Stearns, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada. The group, formed a decade ago, is responsible for several mass killings of civilians and claims to defend ethnic Tutsis living in Congo against Hutu militias.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame came to power at the head of a rebel force fighting to defend Tutsis from Hutu extremists who killed about 800,000 ethnic Tutsis during the 1994 genocide. Kagame says remnants of those Hutu forces that fled into Congo remain a threat to the Rwandan state.
“Rwanda sees itself as a misunderstood victim, not just of aggression from extremist groups but of an international community that did nothing in 1994 and now criticizes Rwanda for trying to protect itself,” Stearns said.
But that’s only one conflict. Stearns said there are more than 120 armed groups active in Congo, including the two most deadly: the Allied Democratic Forces, which have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group, and the Cooperative for the Development of Congo, a loose alliance of ethnically based militias.
The long-running conflicts and entrenched corruption are draining Congo’s treasury. Tshisekedi, who will seek a second term in polls scheduled for December, has had some successes, Stearns said. He has demonstrated independence from his successor, introduced free donor-backed primary schooling and nearly doubled government revenue during his tenure. But he has also failed to reform Congo’s chaotic army, meaning soldiers on the front line are often without food or fuel, leaving villages vulnerable to attack.
Houreld reported from Nairobi.