Pope Francis on trip to Congo: ‘Hands off Africa!’

The pontiff is on a six-day trip that will also take him to South Sudan, two of the most dangerous countries on the continent and among the few places where Catholicism remains robust

Papa Francisco
Pope Francis upon his arrival in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this Tuesday.ALEXIS HUGUET (AFP)
Daniel Verdú

Pope Francis on Tuesday landed in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the first stop on a six-day trip that will also take him to South Sudan. These are two of the most dangerous countries on the continent and among the few places where Catholicism remains robust.

The trip was originally scheduled for July but had to be postponed due to the pontiff’s knee problems, as he himself recalled during the flight. As soon as he landed in Kinshasa, he launched into an opening speech to Congolese government authorities, including President Félix Tshisekedi, and began to explain his vision of the conflicts that plague the country.

“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hands off Africa! Stop choking it: Africa is not a mine to be exploited or a land to be plundered. May Africa be the protagonist of its own destiny,” said the pope in a long speech in which he made an impassioned defense of the continent’s dignity against all forms of political abuses, both foreign and domestic.

Francis arrived in Congo at a particularly delicate moment for the region. The escalation of violence – which last year took the life of the Italian ambassador to the country, Luca Attanasio, assassinated near the city of Goma – has forced the cancellation of the scheduled stop in this latter city in the northeast of the country. “The Democratic Republic of the Congo, tormented by war, continues to suffer within its borders conflicts and forced migration, and continues to suffer terrible forms of exploitation, unworthy of man and of Creation. This immense country full of life, this diaphragm of Africa, hit by violence like a punch in the stomach, seems to have been out of breath for a long time,” said Francis, the first Latin American pope in the history of the Catholic Church.

Many of the violent conflicts that have afflicted Congo in recent times involve the exploitation of deposits, especially minerals such as coltan, which is fundamental to manufacture phones and computers. The Pope alluded to this directly. “This country, abundantly pillaged, is not able to benefit sufficiently from its immense resources: it has reached the paradox that the fruits of its own land make it a foreigner for its own inhabitants. The poison of greed has bloodied its diamonds,” he said before revealing the purpose of his trip: bringing international attention to a long-ignored conflict.

“Looking at this town, one has the impression that the international community has almost resigned itself to the violence that devours it. We cannot get used to the blood that has flowed in this country for decades, causing millions of deaths without many knowing about it. Let what is happening here be known. May the peace processes that are underway, which I encourage with all my strength, be supported by facts and may the commitments be maintained.”

Besides the violence caused by the exploitation of the country’s mineral resources, political and ethnic conflicts have also fueled a rising fatality count. Between 1998 and 2007, an estimated 5.4 million people died in Congo, according to the humanitarian organization International Rescue Committee. The latest UN data estimates that between June 2021 and March 2022, 1,261 civilians were killed by armed groups in the North Kivu and Ituri regions.

Francis also asked the president to avoid “falling into tribalism and opposition.” “Stubbornly taking sides with one’s own ethnic group or with particular interests, fueling spirals of hatred and violence, is detrimental to everyone, since it blocks the necessary chemistry of the whole group. [...] The problem is not in the nature of the people or the ethnic and social groups, but in the way they decide to be together. The willingness – or not – to help each other, to reconcile and start anew, makes the difference between the darkness of conflict and a bright future of peace and prosperity.”

Pope Francis with the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Félix Tshisekedi, during the welcome ceremony.
Pope Francis with the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Félix Tshisekedi, during the welcome ceremony.YARA NARDI (REUTERS)

The region’s problems are often compounded by the actions of the people in power. Tshisekedi is hoping to win a second term in office at elections to be held in the fall, but his victory is not assured. “Those who hold civic and government responsibilities are called upon to act with transparency, exercising the position they received as a means to serve society. It is very important to stay away from authoritarianism, from the desire for easy profits and the greed for money,” said Francis. “And, at the same time, to favor free, transparent and credible elections; further expand participation in peace processes to women, youths and marginalized groups; to seek the common good and the safety of the people above personal or group interests; to reinforce the presence of the State throughout the territory; to take care of the many displaced people and refugees.”

With Tshisekedi by his side, the pope uttered a famous phrase attributed to the 5th-century theologian Saint Augustine: “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?” he said.

The Pope ended his speech by remembering the environmental side of the conflict, reflecting one of the pontiff’s great obsessions. “The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to one of the largest green lungs in the world, which must be preserved. As in the case of peace and development, in this field it is also important to have broad and fruitful collaboration that allows effective intervention, without imposing external models that are more useful for those who help than for those who are helped.”

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