In his 10 years leading the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has called attention to the plight of refugees and the poor and to the plunder of the earth’s natural riches. He has traveled to the peripheries of the church to touch the wounds of its afflicted and most forgotten. And he has welcomed young Catholics, especially in the booming global south, to a more inclusive church.
On Tuesday, Francis landed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that crystallizes all those priorities. He is the first pope since 1985 to visit the nation, where local church leaders have declared a moral emergency desperately in need of the pope’s, and the world’s, attention.
After the pope touched down in the capital, Kinshasa, children, dressed in white, bearing flowers, and soldiers in uniform with feathered caps greeted Francis, who descended from the plane in an elevator. Cardinals in white robes with red sashes preceded him. During the flight, as the plane flew over the Sahara, Francis asked for a moment of silence to remember all the people who have died trying to cross the desert in search of a better life.
Francis, 86, who often uses a wheelchair, will also visit South Sudan on a trip that will last until Sunday. He had originally planned to visit the countries last year but postponed the trip because of a knee ailment that has since improved.
In the meantime, violence in Congo’s embattled east has flared up again, with more than 120,000 people fleeing rebel attacks in the countryside and seeking shelter in the city of Goma. The fighting has forced Francis to scrap that leg of the trip, and victims of the region’s violence will instead come to see him in the capital of Kinshasa.
“The visit of the Holy Father can have a positive impact on how the country is governed,” said Boniface Deagbo, secretary executive of Caritas Congo, the charity arm of the Catholic Church. “We hope that the visit is a good opportunity for doing advocacy for ending the war and for security in the D.R.C.”
That is a tall order. Congo is home to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. It is fueled by a legacy of colonialism and the genocide across the border in Rwanda, which has helped fill refugee camps with more than 5.5 million people.
Rebel groups, some supported by Rwanda and Uganda, pillage villages, steal livestock, murder residents and rape women. Vast rainforests are plundered for gold, cobalt and other resources, partly to pay for weapons and war. Some local church officials say widespread corruption is at the heart of the problem.
But as much as Congo embodies the wounds that Francis hopes to heal, it is also a country with potentially great influence on the church’s future.
About half of Congo’s more than 95 million people are Catholic, making it the faith’s deepest well in Africa, the continent many hope will replenish the church as attendance shrinks in the West. In 2022, Agenzia Fides, a Vatican news agency, estimated that Africa’s 265 million Catholics made up about 20 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion followers. And that number is growing.
The Catholic Church has always played a role in Congo, especially in promoting democracy and human rights. John Paul II visited Congo, then known as Zaire, in 1980 and returned in 1985. Mr. Deagbo, the official of Caritas Congo, said that the church provided health care, food programs and education to many millions of Congolese.
Since the 1990s, the church has also been instrumental in trying to hold the country’s leaders to account. The Congo bishops’ conference, the most vocal in Africa, did not shy away when President Joseph Kabila postponed elections after the completion of his term in December 2016. It organized protests and brought the issue to international attention, helping to force Mr. Kabila to renounce a third term.
The church later deployed about 40,000 observers for a presidential election in 2018, announcing that there was a clear winner, but stopping short of saying who it was. Experts agreed that it was Martin Fayulu, the leading opposition candidate, but another opposition figure, Félix Antoine Tshilombo Tshisekedi, took power. Still, it was the country’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since it achieved independence from Belgium in 1960.
In January 2020, Francis met Mr. Tshisekedi to discuss improved relations between the Holy See and Congo. Another election is set to take place this December.
Catholics have remained politically engaged. After celebrating Mass on some Sundays, congregations across the country have marched straight from church in large-scale demonstrations, making it more difficult for the authorities to crack down on them. Protesters have demanded fresh elections and an end to the war in the east.
But that remains only an aspiration. Esperance Lwabo Nyende, 30, took her three young daughters and fled for safety when Rwandan, Congolese and Ugandan rebels of the M23 insurgency recently attacked her village in Rutshuru.
“I was very tired because of being pregnant,” she said, outside her family’s new home, assembled from twigs and a sheet of tarpaulin, in a makeshift camp. “This is a miserable life. There’s diarrhea, famine, cold,” she added, wishing that decision makers had “the courage to talk like men so we can go home.”
The east of Congo has been in episodic turmoil since 1994, when the genocide across the border in Rwanda sent millions of refugees — including perpetrators of the massacres — over the border and into huge camps. But there has been a recent escalation in the long-running conflict driven by the re-emergence of M23, or the March 23 Movement, which refers to a failed peace agreement signed on that date in 2009.
There are also more than 120 other armed groups and self-defense militias fighting for land and power in the North and South Kivu, Ituri, and Tanganyika provinces.
“We’re in a situation of total insecurity,” said Dady Saleh, a professor in Goma. “For more than 90 percent of people, it’s extreme poverty, extreme insecurity.”
Francis sent condolences this month after Islamist militants attacked a Pentecostal church in the North Kivu Province, killing at least 14 and wounding more than 60 people. Explosions claimed by the Islamic State hit a Catholic church and a market in Beni.
Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa of Kisangani, who is also president of the bishops’ conference, has said church officials are anxious about continued attacks by armed groups against civilians in displacement camps. The violence has killed scores of people, including the Italian ambassador to Congo, Luca Attanasio, in 2021, while he was leading a World Food Program delegation near Goma.
Tuesday marked Francis’ fifth trip to Africa. When he was younger and more mobile, he waved from inside an open popemobile as he traversed the dirt roads of the Central African Republic in 2015. In trips to Madagascar, Mauritius and Mozambique in 2019, he underlined his commitment to Africa’s poor and to the protection of its natural resources.
That is a message he will take up again in Congo, a country rich in gold, copper, diamonds and two-thirds of the world’s cobalt.
China and the United States have been racing to gain control over the global supply of cobalt, an essential part of electric car batteries. Almost all of Congo’s gold ends up in the hands of regional powers, and is then smuggled out to international markets.
The competition for Congo’s wealth leads to the exploitation of mine workers, violence against the communities living around mines and fuels conflicts, particularly in the country’s east.
Caleb Kabanda contributed reporting from Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gaia Pianigiani from Siena, Italy.