Pope Francis to visit South Sudan and DR Congo in July

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ROME — Keeping a promise made years ago, Pope Francis will visit South Sudan, a country torn by civil war, in July. He will also visit the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“At the invitation of their respective Heads of State and Bishops, His Holiness Pope Francis will make an Apostolic Journey to the Democratic Republic of Congo from July 2 to 5, 2022, visiting the cities of Kinshasa and Goma and South Sudan from July 5 July 7, visit to Juba,” reads the statement released by the Vatican press office shortly after noon Rome time.

Francis had announced the trip himself, from the window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, following a Sunday Angelus in 2019. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s instability delayed the visit.

Pope Francis kisses the feet of South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir on April 11, 2019, following a two-day retreat at the Vatican for political leaders from African countries. (CNS photo/Vatican Media via Reuters)

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni did not say whether Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, would join the South Sudanese leg of the visit, but the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office confirmed that the leader Anglican would accompany the pontiff. The two talked about wanting to visit this African nation together. In fact, Welby talked about this possibility on February 6.

“God willing, over the next few months, maybe the year, we’ll go see them in Juba, not Rome, and we’ll see what progress can be made,” Welby said. “It’s history,” Welby said of the likely trip that will mark the first time the two Christian leaders have traveled together.

Pope Francis has joined other Christian leaders in the past on his travels, such as visiting the Greek island of Lesbos, where he traveled with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

Pope Francis embraces Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion, during a meeting November 13, 2019, at the Pope’s Vatican residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae. (Credit: CNS photo/Vatican Media.)

The purpose of the trip is said to be to bolster the tenuous peace forged by the African country’s leaders following a spiritual retreat that Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby and Francis led at the Vatican in 2019.

More than 400,000 people died in the 2013-2019 civil war.

In December, Vatican Foreign Minister Archbishop Paul Gallagher traveled to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, where he met with the country’s political and religious leaders.

While noting that “there is no perfect time for such a visit,” Gallagher said there was “strong support” from local authorities for a papal trip in 2022.

The first time Francis raised the possibility of traveling to South Sudan with Welby was in 2017, when meeting with the Anglican community in Rome.

“My staff are exploring the possibility of a trip to South Sudan,” Francis said. “But why? Because Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic bishops came to me and said, ‘Please come to South Sudan, maybe just for a day. But don’t come alone, come with Justin Welby. It came from the young church in this country, and it made us think of a very bad situation there, and the fact that they want peace, to work together for peace.

Already in October of that year, it seemed that the visit could take place, but the worsening of the political context and the escalation of clashes in different regions of the country and a serious humanitarian crisis put a stop to the visit. ‘initiative.

South Sudan is a landlocked nation that gained independence from Sudan in 2011, making it the most recent widely recognized sovereign nation. However, the country soon descended into a civil war largely based on tribal affiliation.

The conflict came to a precarious end in February 2020, when rivals Salva Kiir Mayardit and Riek Machar formed a coalition government.

A nun wears a protective mask in the colors of the Democratic Republic of Congo, during the Angelus prayer celebrated by Pope Francis from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, Sunday, June 28, 2020. (Credit: Ricardo De Luca/AP.)

At first glance, Francis’ visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) raises fewer security concerns: it is the largest Catholic country in Africa, with around 35 million Catholics, but given the increase in the country’s population, it will more than double that total by mid-century.

Yet in western Congo, members of the Batende and Banunu groups are locked in a deadly cycle of ethnic violence that has claimed hundreds of lives. In the east, numerous armed groups – as many as 116 according to some estimates – operate with impunity.

A staggering 5.5 million Congolese are classified as internally displaced and one million are registered as refugees and asylum seekers in 20 countries. The country is also home to the third largest population of poor people in the world, behind India and Nigeria. Around 80% of the country’s population lives on less than $1.25 a day.

Pope Francis has made four visits to Africa since his election in 2013: to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic in 2015; Egypt in 2017; and twice in 2019, first visiting Morocco, then a week-long visit to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius.

No previous pope has ever visited South Sudan, and this will be the papal visit to the DRC since Saint John Paul II visited the country in 1985, when it was still known as Zaire.

The trip to South Sudan and the DRC is the second papal visit announced for this year, with Francis due to travel to Malta in early April.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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