KINSASA – Pope Francis arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo – DR Congo as part of a six-day visit to the African continent that includes a trip to South Sudan.
It is the first time that a pope has visited the DRC since 1985 – a country with a population close to 100 million people, 40 per cent of whom are Catholic – where local church leaders have declared a moral emergency desperately in need of the pope’s, and the world’s, attention.
“That he has left home to come to us here is a joy, for me, I see it as a dream come true. We waited for him last year, well even if he said he postponed. I didn’t have much hope anymore, but to see now that it happens, I’m thrilled! I don’t know what else to say but I’m thrilled,” aid worshipper Clémentine Teka.
The Pope is aiming to bring a message of peace to the two countries riven by poverty and conflict.
“When we see a great authority like the pope coming to the Congo, it shows that diplomacy is working and as a Christian, his presence is also as a man of God.
“I am not a Catholic, but the presence of a man of God in the country is also a blessing. So we can only praise his presence,” said Kinshasa resident Andy Lombi.
During his visit to DR Congo – the Pope will meet the authorities as well as victims of violence in addition to members of the clergy and charities operating in the country.
Aid groups are hoping Francis’ trip would shine a spotlight on two of the world’s forgotten conflicts and rekindle international attention on some of Africa’s worst humanitarian crises, amid donor fatigue and new aid priorities in Ukraine.
Tens of thousands of people were expected to attend a prayer vigil Tuesday evening at N’dolo airport ahead of a mass on Wednesday morning, which is tipped to draw more than a million faithful.
Meanwhile, DR Congo authorities have demanded that the Rwandan army deployed under the East African States – EAC regional force in Goma – vacate its territory – immediately.
Major General Sylvain Ekenge Bomusa Efomi, the national spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo – FARDC noted in a January 31 statement that the decision was based on security reasons.
DR Congo has requested the Commander of the Regional Force of the States of East Africa to make sure that Rwandan military officers are repatriated to their country.
DR Congo had earlier rejected the deployment of the Rwandan Defense Forces under the East African Regional Force in the eastern part of the country to end insecurity.
It is still unclear how RDF soldiers crossed into DRC without the knowledge of the host country. DRC has repeatedly accused Rwanda of backing the M23, a charge Rwanda strongly denies. On January 24, 2023, RDF soldiers shot at the DR Congo fighter jet on accusations of violating its airspace, a claim DRC denied.
DR Congo claimed that the RDF Navy force attacked the FARDC Navy force on Saturday evening January 28, 2023, on Lake Kivu specifically at Ibindja Island in Kivumo village, Kalehe territory, South Kivu province. DRC said that they successfully repelled the attack.
Relatedly, heavy fighting between M23 rebels and FARDC soldiers and its militia coalition is on-going since Tuesday morning in Kilorirwe, Burungu, Kishishe, and Kitshanga in Masisi territory, both Lawrence Kanyuka, M23 political spokesperson, and locals in the area have confirmed. FARDC is using heavy, light weapons and aircraft to shell the positions of M23 in the area.
“The fighting has been raging since 6 a.m. this Tuesday 31-01-2023. The Government coalition was bombarded with heavy artillery, all M23 positions in KILORIRWE, BURUNGU, KISHISHE, KITCHANGA, and their surroundings, as well as heavily populated areas. The M23 defends itself,” Kanyuka said in a statement.
FARDC has not released a statement about the latest fighting. But last week, President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo assured the country that the army will chase M23 from Kitshanga. Kenyan soldiers in North Kivu under the EAC regional force are yet to start fighting in favor of dialogue.
Diplomatic exchanges are also at a standstill. The last meeting scheduled for mid-January 2022 Doha (Qarar) between the Rwandan and Congolese authorities did not take place after DR Congo authorities failed to turn up at the last hour.