Francis began the second day of his visit to the continent with a direct appeal to the warring groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo to put down their weapons and forgive one another.
The thumping church music, booming choir and exuberant crowd of about a million people greeting Pope Francis for an open-air Mass on Wednesday in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, felt a world away from the violence ravaging the country’s east, where scores of competing armed groups are pillaging villages, plundering resources and heightening tensions with neighboring Rwanda.
But Francis, who was forced to abandon his plan to visit the east because of the spike in fighting there, tried to touch the region’s wounds by bringing some of its victims of violence to him.
“We continue to be shocked to hear of the inhumane violence that you have seen with your eyes and personally experienced,” Francis said after listening to the searing stories of survivors in a private meeting at the papal nunciature in Kinshasa on Wednesday.
“To you, dear inhabitants of the east,” Francis continued, “I want to say: I am close to you. Your tears are my tears; your pain is my pain. To every family that grieves or is displaced by the burning of villages and other war crimes, to the survivors of sexual violence and to every injured child and adult, I say: I am with you.”
On his second day in Congo, part of a six-day trip that will also take him to South Sudan, Pope Francis focused on what he called a “forgotten genocide” in the Congo, seeking to bring a measure of peace to an overwhelmingly Christian country that has known little of it.
From cobalt to gold, Congo has a treasure trove of minerals that armed groups, and even neighboring countries like Uganda and Rwanda, continue to plunder and export, according to the United Nations.
Francis on Wednesday directly appealed to the warring groups to put down their weapons, and condemned “the massacres, the rapes, the destruction and occupation of villages, and the looting of fields and cattle.”
The pope already set an urgent, angry tone on Tuesday when he referred to the decades of horrors in Congo as an overlooked “genocide” perpetrated by generations of exploiters, plunderers and power-hungry groups who had preyed on the country’s roughly 100 million people, many of them members of his flock. “Never again violence, never again resentment, never again resignation!” Francis reiterated on Wednesday.
Sitting beside Francis in the National Palace on Tuesday, the country’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, accused the world of forgetting Congo, of plundering its natural resources and of engaging in complicity in the atrocities of the east through “inaction and silence.”
“In addition to armed groups,” he said, “foreign powers eager for the minerals in our subsoil commit cruel atrocities with the direct and cowardly support of our neighbor Rwanda, making security the first and greatest challenge for the government.”
Mr. Tshisekedi’s comments laid bare not only the rising tensions with Rwanda but also the violence in the country’s eastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri that has shaken Congo, Africa’s second-largest nation.
Around 120 armed groups operate in the three provinces, according to the Kivu Security Tracker, which documents human rights violations in the region, with many of those groups ransacking villages, killing residents with guns and machetes, and attacking medical centers.
The unrest has displaced more than 521,000 people since March, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, with many more fleeing across the border to Uganda.
“It causes indignation to know that the insecurity, violence and war that tragically affect so many people are disgracefully fueled not only by outside forces, but also from within, for the sake of pursuing private interests and advantage,” Francis said on Wednesday.
Earlier, during his homily, he urged “all of you in this country who call yourselves Christians but engage in violence” to put down their guns.
The pope arrived Wednesday morning at an airport field in Kinshasa, riding around in his popemobile and waving to a vast and swaying sea of onlookers, a turnout Francis has not seen in years. Some cheered him from the wings of planes. Long rows of children in white Communion dresses danced. Many wore shirts, hats and brilliant, flowing dresses bearing Francis’ face.
But even among the joyous crowd a recognition of the grisly situation in the east lingered.
“Many, many terrorists,” said Edouard Lobanga, 38. “They are killing the women, killing the children, killing the girls.”
Hours later, Francis came face to face with those who have lived through those horrific experiences. In the papal embassy, victims put machetes and knives that they said were similar to the ones used to murder their families on the floor near the pope.
Ladislas Kambale Kombi, 16, from Eringeti, recounted how men in fatigues hacked his father to death in front of him, putting his head in a basket, and how his brother too was murdered and armed men carried his mother away. “I can’t sleep at night,” he said, saying it was hard to understand the “almost animalistic brutality.”
Through a friend who spoke French, Bijoux Mukumbi Kamala, 17, from Goma, stood before the pope and recounted how rebels took her into a forest and offered her to their commander, who raped her multiple times a day “like an animal” for more than a year and a half before she could finally escape.
Others spoke as well, asking God to forgive their tormentors, and kneeling before Francis, who looked particularly solemn as he put his hand on their heads and blessed them.
Francis applauded the victims for taking the tough road of forgiveness to achieve reconciliation and peace.
“Hatred and violence are never acceptable, never justifiable, never tolerable, all the more so for Christians,” he said, adding that “this does not mean we should stop being indignant in the face of evil or denouncing it; no, this is our duty!” He continued: “Nor does it mean granting immunity or condoning atrocities, carrying on as if nothing had happened.”
But he said people needed to try for peace, even those in the most polarized ethnic groups.
“A new future will come about if we see others, whether Tutsi or Hutu, no longer as adversaries or enemies,” Francis said.
That is not an easy task. The militants have attacked the most vulnerable. Last year, dozens of displaced people, including children, were hacked to death at a makeshift camp in Ituri Province. Even after the groups leave specific areas, many of those displaced are unwilling to return home, the United Nations has said.
The attacks have intensified despite the presence of an 18,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in the region. Local populations have repeatedly protested against the peacekeepers, insisting that they leave the country because they have failed to protect the people from the militants.
Among the deadliest groups jostling for power and influence in the mineral-rich east is the Allied Democratic Forces. Set up in the 1990s in opposition to the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, the group has killed hundreds of civilians, according to the United Nations, and was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in 2021. Uganda and Congo have been conducting a joint operation against the group for more than a year.
But the organization at the heart of the rising violence in the past year is the M23, or the March 23 Movement. The Congolese government, the United Nations and the United States have all accused Rwanda of backing the group — an accusation that Rwanda has repeatedly denied.
The M23 has intensified its attacks against the Congolese government for failing to honor a 2009 agreement that would have integrated them into the army and for marginalizing people who speak Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s official language.
As the attacks have surged, the M23 has taken over towns and villages. Human Rights Watch and other groups have accused the M23 of executions and indiscriminate shelling of civilian and military areas.
The resurgence of the M23 has heightened tensions between Congo and Rwanda, who accuse each other of cross-border shelling.
Congolese officials have accused Rwanda of wanting to plunder their nation’s mineral resources. Protests have broken out in cities across the east, with many citizens castigating Rwandan aggression. Last month, Rwanda said it had fired at a Congolese jet that had violated its airspace, an accusation that Congo denied.
Many fear the rising threat of an all-out war in the Great Lakes region of Africa.
It was just such an outcome that Francis seemed to warn against on Wednesday as he excoriated “a war unleashed by an insatiable greed for raw materials and money that fuels a weaponized economy and requires instability and corruption.”
Francis sought to encourage all possible steps toward peace, though several rounds of talks between the countries have been held with no reported progress.
“Loving our own country means refusing to get involved with those who foment violence,” Francis said, adding, “Dear friends, only forgiveness can open the door to the future, for it opens the door to a new justice that, without ever forgetting, puts an end to the vicious cycle of revenge.”