Pope Francis to visit DR Congo, South Sudan in July

Pope Francis being helped to stand after kissing the feet of South Sudan president, Salva Kiir Mayardit during a Vatican special retreat for South Sudanese leaders on April 11, 2019. FILE PHOTO/ VATICAN

What you need to know:

  • The 85-year-old pontiff will visit the DRC from July 2 to 5, visiting the capital Kinshasa and Goma in the eastern province of North Kivu.
  • The DRC, where about 40 percent of the estimated 90 million inhabitants are Catholic, is struggling with dozens of armed groups in the east of the vast nation.
  • Francis has made four visits to the continent of Africa since his election in 2013.

Pope Francis in July will visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, two African nations plagued by violence in which the pontiff has taken particular interest, the Vatican announced on Thursday.

The 85-year-old pope will be in the DRC from July 2 to 5, visiting the capital Kinshasa and Goma, the main town in the restive eastern province of North Kivu, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said.

He will then head to South Sudan from July 5 to 7, visiting the capital Juba, as part of a trip organised "at the invitation of their respective heads of state and bishops".

Security is likely to be tight for both parts of what will be the pope's fifth visit to the African continent and his second overseas trip announced for this year.

South Sudan, the world's newest nation, has suffered from chronic instability since independence in 2011, including a brutal five-year civil war.

Meanwhile the DRC, which Pope John Paul II visited in August 1985, is struggling to contain dozens of armed groups in the east of the vast nation.

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Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa, head of the national bishops conference in DRC, told a press conference in Kinshasa the pope's visit would "revive the hope of the Congolese people, who need peace, security and well-being".

Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, archbishop of Kinshasa, said it was "an invaluable gift... to our country, to our people, a people who are currently going through difficult times".

About 40 percent of the estimated 90 million inhabitants of DRC are Catholic, another 35 percent are Protestant or affiliated to Christian revivalist churches, nine percent are Muslim and 10 percent follow the Kimbanguist Congolese church.

The country has a secular government, but religion is omnipresent in most people's lives and the Catholic Church in particular has at times played a leading role in local politics.

 Kissing leaders' feet 
South Sudan meanwhile has lurched from crisis to crisis even after a 2018 peace deal, battling flooding and hunger as well as violence and political bickering as the promises of the agreement failed to materialise.

The United Nations on Tuesday said at least 440 civilians were killed in fighting between rival armed militias in southwestern South Sudan between June and September last year.

The Vatican has been directly involved in efforts to end the conflict, with Pope Francis himself kissing the feet of rival leaders Salva Kiir and Riek Machar in an extraordinary moment in 2019.

Barnaba Marial Benjamin, South Sudan's minister of presidential affairs, told journalists in Juba his country would prepare "a great welcome that the people of South Sudan have been waiting for for many years".

Stephen Ameyu Martin, the archbishop of Juba, added that the pope was concerned not just about religion but politics and "all of our lives, and so he has come in solidarity with South Sudan". 

Francis has made four visits to the continent of Africa since his election in 2013.

He visited Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic in 2015, Egypt in 2017, and two years later went first to Morocco and then made a week-long visit to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius.

The trip to South Sudan and DRC is the second papal visit announced for this year, with the pope set to travel to Malta on April 2-3.

The pontiff, who last year spent 10 days in hospital after undergoing an operation on his colon, recently cancelled several engagements due to knee pain.