The pope is planning to spend three days in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most populous and most Catholic nations in Africa. While it has extensive natural riches, its people have long been buffeted by conflict and exploitation.
With immense mineral wealth and fertile land, a large, youthful population, and a territory about the size of Western Europe, the Democratic Republic of Congo should be the economic engine of Africa and a global power.
But the country, sometimes called Africa’s “sleeping giant,” has been hobbled by a bloody legacy of colonialism, drawn-out wars, decades of mismanagement of public funds and a chronic lack of infrastructure. Pope Francis had planned to travel to eastern Congo, but an escalation in the relentless fighting by militia groups there — which has cost millions of lives over the course of the conflict — prompted him to stick to the capital in the west, Kinshasa.
The country was set up to fail, many historians say, by its colonizing power, Belgium, which for decades ruled Congo with an iron fist, extracting its vast natural wealth. Belgium left abruptly after independence in 1960, denying Congo the transition period its leaders had asked for.
Just before his assassination in 1961, Patrice Lumumba, the independence leader who served as Congo’s first prime minister, wrote in his final letter to his wife: “I want my children, whom I leave behind and perhaps will never see again, to be told that the future of the Congo is beautiful.”
More than half a century later, Congo is still striving to attain his vision.
It’s home to a vast rainforest known as one of the world’s lungs.
Most of the Congo rainforest, almost 500 million acres of biodiverse tropical forests and carbon-rich peatlands, is in Congo. (The rest is spread across its neighbors.) Second only to the Amazon, the Congo rainforest removes vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere — one study estimated its worth at $55 billion per year.
The rainforest and peatlands face multiple threats — from loggers, charcoal makers, and, most recently, the Congolese government, which announced last year that it would auction off oil blocks that overlap with protected areas. Congo recently granted three North American companies the rights to develop gas blocks under Lake Kivu.
Though parts of it are fast disappearing, vast tracts of the rainforest are still undisturbed.
Congo is rich in rare and precious minerals.
With gold, copper, diamonds, coltan and what is believed to be two-thirds of the globe’s cobalt — a key ingredient in electric car batteries — Congo is considered by experts to be one of the world’s richest countries, in terms of minerals.
And competition for them is fierce. As the world begins the transition away from fossil fuels, cobalt has become extremely valuable. China and the United States have been racing to gain control over the global supply.
Almost all of Congo’s gold ends up in the hands of regional powers including Rwanda and Uganda — smuggled out, refined and then exported to international markets, especially to the United Arab Emirates, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. Rwanda and Uganda have denied the accusations.
The rush to reap Congo’s wealth has led to exploitation of mine workers, violence against the local communities and proxy warfare — particularly in the country’s east.
People in the east face escalating violence and instability.
Conflict has gripped the east for decades, with more than 100 armed groups and their alphabet soup of acronyms — including the A.D.F., the F.D.L.R., the L.N.R. and CODECO — killing, raping, and displacing 5.5 million people, according to the United Nations. Refugees from Congo have for years been fleeing to other countries in Africa, and to Europe, Canada and the United States.
But recently, a militia group called the M23 has been driving a new wave of violence, carrying out massacres and causing hundreds of thousands to flee, many heading for the lakeside city of Goma. There, tiny tents made of tarpaulin and duct tape now fill the landscape, providing pitiful shelter to their occupants, who are often small children and their traumatized mothers.
Congo says Rwanda is backing the M23, and the Congolese president, Felix Tshisekedi, has accused the country of “expansionist tendencies.” Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame — long a darling of the West, his country a major recipient of U.S. aid money — denies supporting the militia. But U.N. experts have published credible evidence that Rwanda exercises “overall command and strategic planning” of M23, arming it and helping with recruitment.
The hostilities, which have roots in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, have escalated in recent weeks as Rwanda fired at a Congolese military jet that it said violated its airspace.
Congo’s Catholic church is politically powerful.
Congo’s Roman Catholic Church — the biggest in Africa — exerts a powerful force in the country’s democracy.
Since the 1990s, the church has been instrumental in trying to hold the country’s leaders to account. After Mass on Sundays, congregations across the country sometimes march straight from church to demonstrations, making it more difficult for the authorities to ban protests, or crack down on them. Over the years, protesters have taken to the streets over a president’s unconstitutional attempt to run for a third term, and demanded fresh elections and an end to the war in the east.
At election time, the church sends observers to polling stations across the country — 40,000 of them in the last election — to check that the polls run smoothly and report any attempts to disrupt proceedings or tamper with results.
The last time Congo went to the polls to choose a new president, in December of 2018, the Catholic Church announced that there was a clear winner. Though it stopped short of saying who won, experts agreed that it was Martin Fayulu, the leading opposition candidate. But Mr. Fayulu did not become president, and neither did the ruling party’s candidate, handpicked by the then-president, Joseph Kabila. Instead, another opposition figure, Mr. Tshisekedi, took power — backed by Mr. Kabila.
Another election is set to take place this December. President Tshisekedi and Mr. Fayulu are expected to once more enter the race.