“Hands down from Africa,” Pope Francis tells the rich world
- The Pope begins a trip to DR Congo and South Sudan
- Francis will meet with the victims of the war in the Congo
- The trip has been postponed since July due to the pope’s knee ailment
KINSHASA, Jan 31 (Reuters) – Pope Francis condemned the “poison of greed” driving conflicts in Africa as he began a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday, saying the rich world must realize that people are more valuable than the minerals in the ground beneath them.
Many tens of thousands of people cheered him as he traveled from the airport to the capital Kinshasa in his papamobile, with some breaking away to follow him while others chanted and waved flags.
But the jubilant mood, one of the liveliest welcomes on his foreign trips, turned somber as the 86-year-old pope spoke to dignitaries at the presidential palace. He condemned “horrific forms of exploitation unworthy of humanity” in Congo, where vast mineral wealth fuels wars, displacement and famine.
“Hands down from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Hands down from Africa. Stop suffocating Africa: this is not a mine to be dug up or a terrain to be plundered,” Francis said.
Congo has some of the world’s richest deposits of diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, tin, tantalum and lithium, but these have fueled conflict between militias, government troops and foreign invaders. Mining is also associated with inhumane exploitation of workers, including children, and environmental degradation.
“It is a tragedy that these lands and more generally the entire African continent continue to suffer various forms of exploitation,” the pope said, reading his speech in Italian as he sat. People listening to a French translation applauded repeatedly.
“The poison of greed has stained its diamonds with blood,” he said, referring specifically to the Congo.
Compounding the country’s problems, eastern Congo is plagued by violence linked to the long and complex aftermath of the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
Congo accuses Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebel group, which is fighting government troops in the east. Rwanda denies this.
“Apart from armed militias, foreign forces hungry for the minerals in our soil are committing, with the direct and cowardly support of our neighbor Rwanda, brutal atrocities,” said Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, speaking right in front of the pope on the same stage on a hot, sultry afternoon.
The pope did not name Rwanda in his address, nor did he take sides in the dispute.
Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo dismissed Tshisekedi’s comments. “It is clear that this ridiculous obsession with scapegoating Rwanda is President Tshisekedi’s election strategy – a distraction from his government’s poor performance and failure to deliver for its citizens,” she told Reuters.
“EATEN BY VIOLENCE”
An estimated 5.7 million people are internally displaced in Congo and 26 million face acute hunger, largely due to the impact of the armed conflict, according to the United Nations.
About half of Congo’s 90 million people are Roman Catholic, and the Church plays a crucial role in running schools and health facilities in the sprawling central African nation, as well as promoting democracy.
The Pope criticized rich countries for ignoring the tragedies unfolding in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa.
“One gets the impression that the international community has practically come to terms with the violence engulfing it (Congo). We cannot get used to the bloodshed that has marked this country for decades, causing millions of deaths,” he said.
Tshisekedi made a similar point: “While the international community remained passive and silent, more than 10 million people were horribly murdered.”
First planned for last July, the pope’s trip was postponed due to an exacerbation of a chronic knee condition. Francis had originally planned to travel to Goma, in eastern Congo, but that stop was canceled due to renewed fighting between M23 rebels and government troops.
In an apparent reference to M23 and other militias active in Congo’s eastern regions, the Pope said the Congolese people are fighting to preserve their territorial integrity “against the pitiable attempts to fragment the country.”
On Wednesday, Frances will celebrate mass at an airport in Kinshasa, which is expected to attract more than a million people. He will also meet with victims of violence from the east.
Francis will remain in Kinshasa until Friday morning, when he will fly to South Sudan, another African country struggling with conflict and poverty.
He will initially be accompanied on this leg of his journey by the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the global Anglican Communion, and by the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. The religious leaders described their joint visit as a “pilgrimage of peace” to the world’s youngest nation.
South Sudan gained independence in 2011 from predominantly Muslim Sudan after decades of conflict. Two years later, the inter-ethnic conflict turned into a civil war that killed 400,000 people. A 2018 deal stopped the worst fights.
Additional reporting by Justin Makangara, Benoit Nyemba, Sonia Raleigh and Stanis Boujakera and Philbert Girinema in Kigali; Written by Estelle Shirbon and Philip Pullella; Editing by Alexandra Hudson, Barbara Lewis and Mark Heinrich
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