The pope reschedules his visit to DR Congo and South Sudan for the start of 2023

Pope Francis will visit the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan in early 2023, two African countries plagued by violence in which he had postponed his planned visit last summer for health reasons.

The Argentine sovereign pontiff will travel to Kinshasa from January 31 to February 3, 2023, then to Juba from February 3 to 5 with the Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual head of the Church of England, the Holy See announced on Thursday.

This trip, initially scheduled for early July, had been postponed indefinitely in June, the Vatican citing the pain in the knee of the pope, who will be 86 years old in December and moves in a wheelchair or using a cane.

But several media had also mentioned risks to his safety, particularly in Goma, the capital of the province of North Kivu, in the east of the DRC, the scene for more than 25 years of violence perpetrated by armed groups.

Initially planned, the stage in this city does not appear in the new program, but the safety of the sovereign pontiff will remain a major challenge for the organizers.

“It is with great joy that we welcome this new announcement” but “it hurts us very much that for security reasons the Pope cannot go to Goma for a visit of comfort to our brothers who are suffering because of the war”, reacted to AFP Bishop Carlos Ndaka, auxiliary bishop and vicar general of Kinshasa.

“We are going to arrange for some representatives from Goma to come and meet the pope in Kinshasa,” he added.

– 40th trip –

The DRC, a country of a hundred million inhabitants, has 40% Catholics, according to estimates. The last visit of a pope to Kinshasa dates back to that of John Paul II in 1985.

The country is a secular state, but religion is omnipresent in the daily life of the Congolese. The Catholic Church in particular has sometimes played a leading role in the political life of the DRC.

In total, the pope will deliver 12 speeches during this trip, the 40th abroad since his election in 2013. In addition to the authorities, he will notably meet victims of violence, displaced persons, members of the clergy and representatives of charities.

The visit to South Sudan, a predominantly Christian and animist country, will be the first by a pope since its independence in 2011.

Tested by chronic instability, this poor country of 11 million inhabitants sank into a bloody civil war between 2013 and 2018 between sworn enemies Riek Machar and Salva Kiir, which claimed the lives of nearly 400,000 people and forced millions others to flee their homes.

Despite a peace agreement signed in 2018 and providing for power sharing within a government of national unity, disputes persist between the two rivals at the top of the state and the violence continues.

– “History” –

In this second stage, presented as “an ecumenical pilgrimage of peace”, the Pope will be accompanied by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who welcomed “this historic visit”, and the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Iain Greenshields.

“Together, we share a deep desire to stand in solidarity with the people of South Sudan in their suffering, to review and renew the commitments their leaders made to the Vatican in 2019,” said Justin Welby.

The Holy See played a mediating role in the peace negotiations: in 2019, Francis invited Salva Kiir and Riek Machar to the Vatican and knelt before them imploring them to make peace, a symbolically strong gesture that marked the spirits.

Since his election in 2013, François has traveled to Africa four times, notably to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic, Egypt and Morocco. His last African trip dates back to September 2019, when he went to Mozambique, Madagascar and then Mauritius.

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