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Huge crowds greet Pope in DR Congo

Christopher Lamb - The Tablet - Fri, Feb 3rd 2023

“Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” Francis said in an address.Huge crowds greet Pope in DR Congo

Pope Francis with President Felix Tshisekedi speaks to an audience of DR Congo's authorities, diplomats, and representatives of civil society. Vatican Media/CNA

Pope Francis began his visit to Africa with a hard-hitting speech condemning the “economic colonialism” plundering the continent’s natural resources, and describing the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a “forgotten genocide.”

The 86-year-old Roman Pontiff landed in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the afternoon of 31 January.

After being welcomed at the airport and meeting Prime Minister Sama Lukonde he travelled to the Palais de la Nation, the presidential palace, where he addressed the country’s political and civic leaders.

Many tens of thousands of people came out to greet the Pope, with crowds several rows deep along the main road out of the airport. School children waved banners, and people cheered as Francis drove past, scenes that demonstrate the Church's growth in Africa and point to Catholicism's future.

Around half of Congo’s more than 95 million people are Catholics, while almost 70 per cent of the population are under 24.

The vast sub-Saharan country, almost the size of western Europe, is endowed with abundant natural resources but has been riven with internal conflicts. Despite its wealth, much of the population lives in grinding poverty while violent conflicts rage over control of the resources, particularly in the mines in the east of the county.

Speaking before the Pope, President Felix Tshisekedi said that over the past three decades, ten million had been killed thanks to armed groups, terrorist attacks and foreign powers “greedy” for the country’s minerals and which he said were being “cowardly” supported by their eastern neighbour, Rwanda.

From 1998-2008 more than six million people were killed in Congo, making it the deadliest conflict since the Second World War. 

Responding to the president, Francis said this was a “forgotten genocide that the Republic of Congo is suffering”.

In his speech, he repeatedly insisted that the true wealth of a country is found in its citizens, who, he said, are the “most precious diamonds of these lands”, a reference to Congo’s diamond mines.

Too often, he added, the West was blind to the exploitation of Africa, pointing out that “economic colonialism” had replaced the political exploitation of historic colonising powers.

Francis added that there was still a “subconscious” attitude in many cultures which believed Africa must be exploited. 

“This country, massively plundered, has not benefitted from its immense resources,” the Pope said to around 1,000 diplomats and civil and political leaders assembled in the garden of the presidential palace. It was here, on 30 June 1960, that Congo proclaimed its independence from Belgium.  

“The poison of greed has smeared its diamonds with blood,” Francis went on.

“Yet this country and this continent deserve to be listed to; they deserve to find space and receive attention. Hands off the Democratic Republic of Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.”

At this point, a loud applause broke up. 

The 86-year-old Roman Pontiff has embarked on one of the boldest and most challenging of his almost 10-year pontificate as he undertakes a visit to Congo and an ecumenical pilgrimage to South Sudan.

Francis boarded the papal plane this morning using a special lift and when the plane was in the air, walked to the back of the aircraft where he greeted the 75 journalists travelling with him on the plane and started by thanking them for their work.

He pointed out that he was not able to go to Goma, the eastern part of the country, due to security fears.

Due to his mobility problems caused by a painful knee, the Pope remained seated while reporters and camera operators lined up to greet him individually.

Afterwards, he stood up and, pointing out that the plane was crossing the Sahara desert, asked for a moment of silent prayer for those who died while crossing the desert in search of “some freedom” and those who come to the Mediterranean and are detained in camps.

Before he departed for the airport, Francis met with a dozen refugees and migrants who had come to Italy thanks to the help of the Jesuit Refugee Service in the country, the Centro Astalli. The long-running internal conflicts in both countries have forced millions to flee their homes. 

During his speech, Francis also called for “free, transparent and credible” elections to take place in the country, which the Church in Congo strongly supported.

It was heavily involved in mediating the 2016 St Sylvester peace accords, which sought to resolve a political, constitutional and social crisis and help form a government.

The Pope also demanded an end to child labour in the country, with many children being forced to work in the country’s cobalt mines, an essential mineral for lithium batteries used in smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles.

Francis told the leaders it was “urgent” that they invest in education and that too many Congolese children receive no schooling. 

“How many of them, instead of receiving a good education, are exploited!” Francis said.

“All too many of them die, subjected to servile labour in the mines. No effort should be spared to denounce and finally end the scourge of child labour.”

After delivering the speech, Francis was driven to the residence of the apostolic nunciature to Congo, where he is staying while in the country.

Tomorrow he will celebrate an open-air Mass in Ndolo airport. Authorities in the country have declared it a public holiday so people can attend the liturgy.

Christopher Lamb, The Tablet’s Rome Correspondent, is among the journalists travelling with Pope Francis and will be filing regular reports on the visit.

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