KINSHASA (Reuters) – Pope Francis’s visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo will remind the world not to ignore decades-long conflicts that have beset the mineral-rich nation and wrecked the lives of millions, the Vatican’s envoy to Kinshasa said.

Francis is expected to visit Congo from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3, the first visit of a pope since 1985. Major preparations have been underway in the vast country, home to the largest Roman Catholic community in Africa.

“The Congo which receives the Pope today is not the same as the one which welcomed Pope John Paul II 38 years ago,” Ettore Balestrero, the Vatican’s envoy to Kinshasa, told Reuters.

“Unfortunately, there have been wars and conflicts that continue. He comes to console the people, he comes to heal wounds that are still bleeding.”

He said the mineral-rich central African nation has 45 million Catholics. The country has struggled with instability and conflicts since the 1990s that have killed millions and given rise to dozens of militias, some of which remain active.

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The pope had planned to visit the eastern city of Goma when the trip was official announced, but that leg of the trip has been canceled follow the resurgence of fighting between the army and the M23 rebel group.

“Congo is a moral emergency that cannot be ignored,” Balestrero said.

The pope is expected to meet victims from the east of the country on Feb. 1 and leaders of Catholic charities, according to the programme of his visit shared by the Vatican.

The Catholic Church plays an important role in the Congo. It manages around 40% of the country’s health structure. About six million students are taught in nursery, primary and secondary schools run by the church, Balestrero said.

It also runs one of the biggest and most trusted election observation missions.

“Historically, the Church in this country has accompanied the consolidation of democratic consciousness and has often been the spokesperson for the most urgent needs of the population,” Balestrero added.

(Reporting by Sonia Rolley; Editing by Bate Felix, William Maclean)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

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