Pope Francis touched down on Tuesday at Kinshasa’s Ndjili airport, where thousands had gathered in anticipation of the first papal visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1985.
The desperately poor and war-ravaged DRC has the sixth largest Catholic population of any country on Earth — estimated to be more than 40% of its nearly 100 million people.
The six-day trip, which will also take in South Sudan, had been planned for July 2022 but was postponed due to the pope having knee pain that has forced him to use a wheelchair in recent months.
A planned stop-off in the eastern city of Goma is no longer on the itinerary, with the surrounding North Kivu region plagued by intense fighting between government forces and the armed Tutsi-led M23 rebel group. The area has also seen attacks linked to the so-called “Islamic State” militant group.
“We’ve been waiting for a year, it’s a beautiful trip,” the 86-year-old pope told reporters traveling aboard his plane.
“I would have liked to go to Goma too, but with the war, you can’t go there,” he added.
Francis first spoke of his hopes of visiting the majority Christian country in 2017, but security fears initially prevented a visit.
On Sunday, after his Angelus prayer at the Vatican, the pontiff had offered his greetings “with affection to those beloved peoples who await me” in DRC and South Sudan.
“These lands, situated in the center of the great African continent, have suffered greatly from lengthy conflicts,” he said.
While the papal plane flew over the Sahara, the pope held a prayer for “all the people who, searching for a little well-being, a bit of freedom, crossed [the desert] and didn’t make it.”
Although DRC boasts vast mineral wealth, some two-thirds of its population lives on less than $2.15 (€1.98) a day, with violence plaguing the eastern provinces.
The country has Africa’s largest Roman Catholic population by far, with a mid-range estimate placing the number at 45 million. Pope John Paul II visited the country twice, in 1980 and 1985 when it was named Zaire and was ruled as a harsh dictatorship.
rc/nm (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)