Hopes high Pope’s African visit will clear path to peace
27 January 2023 • Persistent link: iarccum.org/?p=4357
Braving a volatile political and security situation, Pope Francis embarks on a long-anticipated journey of unity and reconciliation to two African countries wracked by bitter divisions, warring factions and humanitarian crises seldom on the radar of international power brokers.
The Pope will travel first to Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on Jan. 31 before proceeding to South Sudan from Feb. 3-5. In the latter country, he will be joined by the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields, in what has been described as an ecumenical pilgrimage to facilitate a peace process that has been moving at a glacial pace following 10 years of a brutal civil war.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, with a population that is 50 percent Catholic, will welcome the Pope for the second time. It will be his first visit to South Sudan, which gained its independence in 2011.
Those working on the ground in the African nations are hopeful the visit will spur peace.
“The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan have high hopes from the visit of the Holy Father,” Maria Lozano, Aid to the Church in Need’s international director of press and information, said at an online conference she hosted on the Pope’s visit.
“When the Pope touches the ground of South Sudan, we hope miracles will happen,” Fr. Samuel Abe, general coordinator of the papal visit to South Sudan, one of the two speakers at the conference told the international audience.
Fr. Godefroid Mombula Alekiabo, academic secretary of St. Augustine University in Kinshasa, said the Catholic Church is a major presence in his country, and that “one can’t overestimate its influence on the population.”
“The Pope will bring the message of Fratelli Tutti (human fraternity and world peace) to the Congo,” he said.
Both countries on the Pope’s travel itinerary are tinderboxes of self-destructive civil wars (often exacerbated by foreign — including Canadian — interference), while the consequent humanitarian crises, worsened by flooding and other natural disasters, remain largely hidden from the world.
In the DRC the situation remains volatile with hundreds of thousands of displaced people needing urgent support. In South Sudan, the power struggle between two leaders, President Salva Kir and his rival VP Riek Machar, has resulted in 2.2 million people being internally displaced and 2.3 million refugees fleeing the county. Four consecutive years of flooding have added to the misery. A flawed peace agreement which has yet to be implemented, has not improved the situation.
But the Pope’s visit will offer an unprecedented opportunity that could lead to positive change, said Jenny Cafiso, executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Jesuits International.
“The wars afflicting these countries are largely unknown, yet millions of people are dying in both countries due to poverty and violence,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The Congolese and South Sudanese are looking to be heard and they are looking for peace. The Pope’s visit will bring these countries and their issues to the world stage. It is an opportunity to be seized, and hopefully it will spur peace and reconciliation.”
She pointed out that over 80 international journalists will be travelling with the Pope.
Cafiso added that CJI’s partners in DRC are pleading with the international community (including Canada) to acknowledge the role of international corporate interests in the wars that plague them, and to help end them. She explained the role played by companies, particularly mining companies (30 percent of which are Canadian) in fuelling conflict.
“The war in DRC is strictly linked to the extraction of minerals, and this is linked to the exploitation of labour including child labour and human rights abuses, and the illegal trade of arms,” she said.
“Our greatest contribution as Canadians is to support the Pope’s mission of peace and reconciliation, and to ensure that the Canadian government enacts legislation that requires Canadian companies to respect human and environmental rights throughout their supply chains.”
She added that this means encouraging Members of Parliament to support Bills C-262 and C-263, which if passed will hold companies to account for human rights violations and environmental destruction resulting from their activities abroad.
Cafiso said Jesuit Refugee Service, partners of Canadian Jesuits International (CJI) in both DRC and South Sudan, are heavily involved in the preparation and hosting of the Pope’s visit. In the DRC the Pope will spend a full day with refugees, displaced people and other victims of the conflict in the country.
In South Sudan, he is expected to travel to Maban, which has the largest concentration of refugees and internally displaced people in the country.
“It’s very clear that he wants to listen to people on the margins. This is very significant for the people there,” Cafiso said. “They expect the visit to have a great impact on their country and the Church.”