Pope Francis to visit South Sudan, DR Congo in July

3 March 2022 • Persistent link: iarccum.org/?p=3985

Fulfilling a promise made years ago, Pope Francis this July will visit South Sudan, a country torn apart by a civil war. He will also visit the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“At the invitation of their respective Heads of State and Bishops, His Holiness Pope Francis will make an Apostolic Journey to the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2 to 5 July 2022, visiting the cities of Kinshasa and Goma and to South Sudan from 5 to 7 July, visiting Juba,” says the statement released by the Vatican’s press office a little after noon Rome time.

Francis had announced the trip himself, from the window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, following a Sunday Angelus in 2019. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s instability delayed the visit.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni did not clarify if Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, would be joining in the South Sudan leg of the visit, but the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury confirmed the Anglican leader would accompany the pontiff. The two have spoken about wanting to visit this African nation together. In fact, Welby spoke about this possibility Feb. 6.

“God willing, sometime in the next few months, maybe year, we will go to see them in Juba, not Rome, and see what progress can be made,” Welby said. “That’s history,” Welby said of the likely trip that will mark the first time the two Christian leaders will travel together.

Pope Francis has joined forces with other Christian leaders in the past on his trips, such as the visit to the Greek Island of Lesbos, where he traveled with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

The aim of the trip would be to strengthen the tenuous peace forged by the African country’s leaders following a spiritual retreat that Welby and Francis led at the Vatican in 2019.

Over 400,000 people died in South Sudan’s 2013-2019 civil war.

Pope Francis kisses the feet of President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, at the conclusion of a two-day retreat at the Vatican for African nation’s political leaders
Pope Francis kisses the feet of President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, at the conclusion of a two-day retreat at the Vatican for African nation’s political leaders. Photo: Vatican Media ~ 11 Apr. 2019

In December, Vatican Foreign Minister Archbishop Paul Gallagher traveled to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, where he met with the country’s political and religious leaders.

While noting that “there is no perfect time for such a visit,” Gallagher said there was “strong support” from local authorities for a papal trip in 2022.

The first time Francis spoke of the possibility of traveling to South Sudan with Welby was in 2017, during a meeting with the Anglican community in Rome.

“My collaborators are studying the possibility of a trip to South Sudan,” Francis said. “But why? Because Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic bishops came to tell me: ‘Please come to South Sudan, maybe just for one day. But don’t come alone, come with Justin Welby.’ This came from the young church in that country, and it made us think about a very bad situation there, and the fact that they want peace, to work together for peace.”

Already in October of that year, it seemed that the visit could take place, but the worsening of the political context and the escalation of clashes in different areas of the country and a serious humanitarian crisis put a stop to the initiative.

South Sudan is a land-locked nation that won its independence from Sudan in 2011, making it the most recent sovereign nation with widespread recognition. However, the country soon descended into a civil war largely based on tribal affiliation.

The conflict came to an unsteady end in Feb. 2020, when rivals Salva Kiir Mayardit and Riek Machar formed a coalition government.

On the surface, Francis’s visit to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) raises fewer security concerns: It is the largest Catholic country in Africa, with around 35 million Catholics, but given the country’s surging population, it’ll more than double that total by mid-century.

Yet in western Congo, members of the Batende and Banunu groups are locked in a deadly cycle of ethnic violence that’s left hundreds dead. In the east, numerous armed groups – according to some estimates, as many as 116 – operate with near impunity.

A staggering 5.5 million Congolese are classified as internally displaced, and one million are registered as refugees and asylum seekers in 20 countries. The country is also home to the third-largest population of poor people in the world, trailing only India and Nigeria. Roughly 80 percent of the country’s population lives on less than $1.25 a day.

Pope Francis has made four visits to Africa since his election in 2013: Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic in 2015; Egypt in 2017; and twice in 2019, visiting first Morocco and then a week-long visit that took in Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius.

No previous pope has ever visited South Sudan, and it will be the first papal visit to Congo since St. John Paul II visited the country in 1985, when it was still known as Zaire.

The trip to South Sudan and DRC is the second papal visit announced for this year, with Francis set to travel to Malta in early April.