Pope Francis was greeted euphorically by hundreds of thousands of people on his arrival in Africa. Children and adults lined the road on which the head of the Catholic Church drove from the airport to the presidential palace in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. There the pontiff vigorously appealed for peace and an end to the bloody conflicts in the country and in many parts of Africa.
"Violence and hatred should no longer have a place in anyone's heart or on their lips, because they are misanthropic and anti-Christian feelings that paralyze development and lead us back to a dark past," said the Argentinean in front of President Félix Tshisekedi and guests of honor.
"Hands off Africa!"
He also sharply criticized how the continent was being exploited. "After political colonialism, an equally enslaving 'economic colonialism' has unleashed," Francis said. "Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hands off Africa! The suffocation of Africa must end: it is not a mine to be exploited and not a soil to be plundered. May Africa itself be the protagonist of its destiny!"
The trip to the Congo and then to South Sudan was important to the Pope - for him it is a pilgrimage of peace. "I've been waiting a year for this trip," he said on the plane. The trip was actually planned for summer 2022 after years of preparation, but was then postponed because of the Pope's knee problems.
This time, too, the 86-year-old will be mostly in a wheelchair during the six days in Central and East Africa. His message should not belittle this: In the two countries plagued by poverty, conflicts and natural disasters, Francis wants to spread some hope and promote peace.
Because of the very fragile security situation, the Pope remains in the Congo in the capital, Kinshasa. "Actually, I also wanted to go to Goma, but I can't because of the war," he told journalists. Violence has recently escalated in eastern Congo, where Goma lies on the border with Rwanda; Rebels repeatedly carried out bloody attacks.
Highest safety precautions
In Kinshasa, security measures were massively increased during the visit: the police and the army exchanged views with Vatican security forces and even the American FBI in advance. The biggest challenge could be a public mass at the N'Dolo military airport on Wednesday morning, which is estimated to be attended by more than a million believers. According to the Vatican, almost half of the more than 100 million inhabitants of the Congo are Catholics - one of the largest Catholic groups in Africa lives in the country on the equator.
In Africa, Francis also wants to meet with displaced people. Refugees have always been a major concern for the Argentine. The morning before departure, the Pope met a group of people who had fled Congo and South Sudan in Rome. As Francis flew over the Sahara, he asked for a prayer for those who "crossed the desert in search of some prosperity and freedom and didn't make it".
Many people hope that the Pope's visit can help concretely improve the situation in the countries. He had already achieved this in South Sudan: in 2019 he invited the president and vice-presidents - who are rivals - to the Vatican, urged them to end the fighting and even kissed their feet. After that, the enemy politicians got together.