The thumping church music, booming choir and exuberant crowd of about a million people greeting Pope Francis for an open-air papal Mass on Wednesday in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, felt a world away from the violence ravaging the country’s east, where scores of competing armed groups are pillaging villages, plundering resources and heightening tensions with Rwanda across the border.
But it was not far from the mind of the pope or of the flock that had come to see him.
“There are many, many problems in Goma,” said Edouard Lobanga, 38, referring to the main city in Congo’s embattled east. “Many, many terrorists. They are killing the women, killing the children, killing the girls.”
Pope Francis began his second day in Congo, part of a six-day trip that will also take him to South Sudan, by focusing on that often-overlooked violence, seeking to bring a measure of peace to an overwhelmingly Christian country that has known little of it.
He directly appealed to the warring groups to put down their weapons, forgive one another and let an enormous nation scarred by bloody conflict and plunder begin to heal.
“For all of you in this country who call yourselves Christians but engage in violence,” Francis said, “The Lord is telling you: ‘Lay down your arms, embrace mercy,’” adding that God “knows the wounds of your country, your people, your land. They are wounds that ache, continually infected by hatred and violence, while the medicine of justice and the balm of hope never seem to arrive.”
Francis sought to be that balm and bring, as he put it in Tuesday’s speech, “the closeness, the affection and the consolation of the entire Catholic Church.” He arrived Wednesday morning to an airport field in Kinshasa, riding around in his popemobile and waving to a vast and swaying sea of onlookers, a turnout the pope has not seen in years. Some cheered him on the wings of planes. Long rows of children in white Communion dresses danced. Many wore shirts, hats and brilliant, flowing dresses bearing Francis’ face.
But the intensifying fighting and violence in the eastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri forced the pope to abandon his original plan to visit Goma, far away in a huge country about 80 times the size of Belgium, its former colonizer.
Instead, some of the victims of that violence will come to Francis on Wednesday, in a private meeting at the papal nunciature in Kinshasa.
Francis already set an urgent, angry tone on Tuesday when he called the decades of horrors in Congo a “forgotten genocide” perpetrated by generations of exploiters, plunderers and power-hungry groups who had preyed on the country’s roughly 100 million people, many of them members of his flock.
Sitting beside Francis in the National Palace on Tuesday, the country’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, accused the world of forgetting Congo, of plundering its natural resources and of engaging in complicity in the atrocities of the east through “inaction and silence.”
“In addition to armed groups,” he said, “foreign powers eager for the minerals in our subsoil commit cruel atrocities with the direct and cowardly support of our neighbor Rwanda, making security the first and greatest challenge for the government.”
Mr. Tshisekedi’s comments laid bare not only the rising tensions with Rwanda but also the violence in the country’s three eastern provinces that has shaken Congo, Africa’s second-largest nation.
Around 120 militant groups operate in the three provinces, according to the Kivu Security Tracker, which documents human rights violations in the region, with many of those groups ransacking villages, killing residents with guns and machetes, and attacking medical centers.
The unrest has displaced more than 521,000 people since March, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, with many more fleeing across the border to Uganda.
The militants have attacked the most vulnerable. Last year, dozens of displaced people, including children, were hacked to death at a makeshift camp in Ituri Province. And even after the groups leave specific areas, many of those displaced are unwilling to return home, the United Nations has said.
The attacks have intensified despite the presence of an 18,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in the region. Local populations have repeatedly protested against the peacekeepers, insisting that they leave the country for failing to protect them from the militants.
Among the deadliest groups jostling for power and influence in the mineral-rich eastern region is the Allied Democratic Forces. Established in the 1990s in opposition to the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, the group has killed hundreds of civilians, according to the United Nations, and was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in 2021. Uganda and Congo have been conducting a joint operation against the group for more than a year now.
But the organization at the heart of the rising violence in the past year is the M23, or the March 23 Movement. The Congolese government, the United Nations and the United States have all accused Rwanda of backing the group — an accusation that Rwanda has repeatedly denied.
The M23 has escalated its attacks against the Congolese government for failing to honor a 2009 agreement that would have integrated them into the army and for marginalizing people who speak Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s official language.
As the attacks have surged, the M23 has taken over towns and villages and rights organizations have accused the group of carrying out executions, of indiscriminately shelling civilian and military areas, and of killing people returning to their homes looking for food.
The resurgence of the M23 has heightened tensions between Congo and Rwanda and raised the threat of an all-out war in the Great Lakes region of Africa.
It was just such an outcome that Francis seemed eager to avoid on Wednesday.
“Brothers and sisters,” he said in his homily. “We are called to be missionaries of peace, and this will bring us peace. It is a decision we have to make. We need to find room in our hearts for everyone; to believe that ethnic, regional, social and religious differences are secondary and not obstacles; that others are our brothers and sisters, members of the same human community.”
But Francis’ words would have to stop troubling momentum. Both Congo and Rwanda have accused each other of shelling the other’s territory. Last month, Rwanda said it had fired at a Congolese jet that had violated its airspace, an accusation that Congo denied. Last year, Rwanda killed a Congolese soldier who it said had shot at its officers at a border area, pushing Congo to close its border.
Congolese officials have accused Rwanda of wanting to plunder their nation’s mineral resources. Protests have broken out in cities across the east, with many citizens castigating Rwandan aggression. The rise in hostilities in eastern Congo has also led to an increase in hate speech and discrimination against Kinyarwanda speakers in Congo, the United Nations has warned.
Several rounds of peace talks have been held in Angola and Kenya, but with no reported advancement toward settling the conflict yet.
Francis sought on Wednesday to give momentum to those peace efforts.
“Together, we believe that Jesus always gives us the possibility of being forgiven and starting over,” he said. “but also the strength to forgive ourselves, others and history.”