“Peace, peace, peace. This is what we are asking for. The population needs peace”, reiterates to SIR Boniface Nakwagelewi ata-Deagbo, executive secretary of Caritas Congo, underlining the word ‘peace’ several times, so that the message may be heard loud and clear by the rest of the world in these days of Pope Francis’ visit to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, where he will remain until February 3 before travelling to South Sudan where he will stay until February 5. The Caritas officer described the festive atmosphere in Kinshasa ahead of the Pope’s arrival, 37 years after the visit of John Paul II, when the country was still called Zaire. No less than one million people are expected to attend the 9.30 a.m. Holy Mass at Ndolo airport today: even as many as “two or three million” according to the national Caritas executive secretary. Noting incredulity at this figure, he confirmed: “Catholics account for almost half of the overall population, there will surely be a large crowd.”
“We are all set to welcome the Pope, there is widespread excitement – he says -, photos and posters of him can be seen all over the city. We stopped working yesterday at noon. People are crowding the streets that he is expected to pass through, although many will be watching him on television.” Pope Francis is scheduled to meet the victims of the conflict in eastern Congo at the apostolic nunciature in the afternoon, followed by a meeting with the representatives of various charities: “The victims include women, children, people with mutilations caused by the war, whose legs and arms have been cut off,” he said. “Many have escaped to Kinshasa, after having been helped by Caritas Goma.
There are more than 52 million Catholics in the Democratic Republic of Congo, roughly half of the overall population. As many as 15 million residents live in Kinshasa, most of them poverty-stricken. The Catholic Church provides support for more than 13,100 primary schools in the country and 40% of all healthcare facilities, while Caritas is actively present in 47 dioceses nationwide. It supplies humanitarian aid, assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons (over 5.5 million in the country), education and treatment against endemic diseases, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and cholera.
Humanitarian crises. ‘We are currently confronted with multiple crises in the country: insecurity in the eastern region, in North Kivu, the fighting between the national army and the rebel group M23, with violent attacks and deaths, causing millions of displaced persons”, says Nakwagelewi ata-Deagbo. Many displaced persons also arrived in Kinshasa.
They live on the streets in precarious conditions. They are facing an outbreak of cholera that is affecting children in particular.”
“The Pope’s visit comes at a time when the Democratic Republic of Congo is facing fierce fighting between the military and the M23 rebels (supported by Rwanda). More than 120 armed groups are operating in the eastern regions of Ituri, North Kivu, South Kivu. UN peacekeeping troops ( MONUSCO) found mass graves containing the bodies of more than 50 civilians in the province of Ituri last week. “We are looking forward to a message of peace from the Pope, for without peace there can be no progress,” said the secretary general of Caritas Congo. “The Congolese people are a courageous people, but it is impossible to work and to live in a climate of insecurity. That is why
people are asking for a lasting peace, in order to overcome poverty and food insecurity, and so they may send their children to school.”
In the opinion of Nakwagelewi ata-Deagbo, the Pope’s presence in Congo “will give major impetus to the peace process, with the hope that the international community may be able to stabilise the situation, although we realise that peace will not happen overnight.” The Pope’s words, he added, “could have a huge impact. I hope he will be heard by the entire Congolese population, by the warring parties, by the United Nations, the international community and the universal Church. We truly hope that his voice will be heard by all.”
The meeting with the bishops tomorrow. Tomorrow, February 2, Pope Francis will meet young people and catechists at Martyrs’ Stadium in Kinshasa. Before leaving, he will consult with the Congolese Bishops’ Conference (‘CENCO’). The upcoming presidential elections in Congo, scheduled for December 20, 2023, are likely to be on the agenda.