‘Hands off Africa!’: Pope blasts foreign plundering of Congo
KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Pope Francis on Tuesday demanded that foreign powers stop plundering Africa’s natural resources for the “poison of their own greed” when he arrived in Congo and was greeted warmly by Congolese who were grateful that he caught the attention of the world
KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Pope Francis on Tuesday demanded that foreign powers stop plundering Africa’s natural resources for the “poison of their own greed” when he arrived in Congo and was greeted to a stormy welcome by Congolese, grateful he was the drew the world’s attention to their forgotten plight.
Tens of thousands of people lined the main street into the capital, Kinshasa, to greet Francis after he landed at the airport, some standing three or four meters tall, with children in school uniforms in the front row.
“The Pope is 86 years old, but he came anyway. It is a sacrifice and the Congolese people will not forget it,” said Sultan Ntambwe, a bank teller in his 30s, as he awaited Francis’ arrival in a scene reminiscent of some of Francis’ previous trips to similarly pro-Catholic countries.
Francis plunged headlong into his agenda upon arrival, condemning centuries of colonial exploitation of Africa, today’s multinational mining industries and interference by neighboring countries in Congo affairs, which has led to a surge in fighting in the east.
“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Stay away from Africa!” Francis said to applaud in his opening address to Congolese government authorities and the diplomatic corps in the garden of Kinshasa’s National Palace.
Pope Francis dubbed Congo’s vast mineral and natural wealth the “diamond of creation” and demanded that foreign interests stop carving up the land for their own interests and recognize their role in the economic “enslavement” of the Congolese people.
“Stop suffocating Africa: it’s not a mine to be demolished or a terrain to be plundered,” said the first Latin American pope in history, who has long ranted about how wealthy countries plunder the resources of poorer countries exploited for their own benefit.
The six-day trip, which also includes a stop in South Sudan, was originally scheduled for July but was postponed because Francis’ knee problems were still so severe on Tuesday that he couldn’t bear to greet journalists on the plane en route to Kinshasa and forced him to use a wheelchair on the ground.
It was also supposed to include a stop in Goma in eastern Congo, but the surrounding North Kivu region has been ravaged by fierce fighting between government forces and the M23 rebel group, as well as attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State group.
According to the World Food Program, the fighting has displaced around 5.7 million people, a fifth of them in the past year alone.
Instead of traveling there, Francis will meet with a delegation of people from the East who will travel to Kinshasa on Wednesday for a private meeting at the Vatican Embassy. The plan calls for them to attend a ceremony in which they jointly pledge to forgive their attackers.
Sylvie Mvita, an economics student in Kinshasa, said the pope’s arrival would draw world attention and TV cameras to Congo and the fighting in the east to show how his suffering has been forgotten by the rest of the world.
“This will allow the world to uncover the atrocities to which our brothers fell victim in the east of the country. And maybe the little bit of humanity that remains in some people will, for once, spark an awakening and the international community will be interested not only in what is happening in Ukraine, but also in what is happening in this country,” she said.
President Felix Tshisekedi expressed a similar line in his speech to the Pope, accusing the international community of forgetting Congo and its accomplice “inaction and silence” about the atrocities in the east.
“In addition to armed groups, foreign powers targeting the minerals in our subsoil are committing cruel atrocities with the direct and cowardly support of our neighbor Rwanda, making security the government’s first and greatest challenge,” he said.
Rwanda has been accused – and has repeatedly denied – of supporting the M23 rebels operating in Congo.
Francis’ harsh words at the outset set the tone for the trip, which will see the pope deliver a message of peace, a warning to the international community not to look the other way, and an acknowledgment that Africa is the future of the Catholic Church.
The continent is one of the few places on earth where the Catholic flock is growing, both in the exercise of faithful and fresh vocations to the priesthood and in religious life.
And Congo is undoubtedly the African country with the most Catholics: half of its 105 million people are Catholics, the country has more than 6,000 priests, 10,000 nuns and more than 4,000 seminarians – 3.6% of the world total of young men studying the priesthood.
That makes Francis’ trip, his fifth to the African continent in his 10-year pontificate, all the more important as the Jesuit pope seeks to remodel the church as a “field hospital for wounded souls” where all are welcome, and poor people have a special place of honor and rivals are urged to make peace.
Aid groups had hoped Francis’ six-day visit would shine a spotlight on the forgotten conflicts in Congo and South Sudan and their mounting humanitarian costs, and rekindle international attention amid donor fatigue that has set in over new aid priorities in Ukraine.
Responding to her call, Francis pointed the finger at the role colonial powers like Belgium played in the exploitation of the Congo until the country, which is 80 times the size of Belgium, gained independence in 1960 and the neighboring countries play today.
Francis did not name Belgium or any neighboring country, but he spared no word of condemnation, quoting Tshisekedi as saying there was a “forgotten genocide” afoot.
“The poison of greed has stained his diamonds with blood,” said Francis. “May the world recognize the catastrophic things that have been done to the detriment of local peoples over the centuries and not forget this country and this continent.”
“We cannot get used to the bloodshed that has scarred this country for decades, causing millions of deaths largely unknown elsewhere,” he said.
At the same time, he called on the Congolese authorities to work for the common good and not for tribal, ethnic or personal interests; and end child labor and invest in education so that Congo’s “most precious diamonds” can shine brightly.
Congolese faithful flocked to Kinshasa for Francis’ main event, a mass Wednesday at Ndolo Airport expected to draw up to 2 million people for one of the largest gatherings of its kind in Congo and one of Francis’ largest masses of all time.
Banners with the Pope’s image carried messages such as “Pope Francis, the city of Kinshasa bids you a warm welcome.”
Some women wore brightly colored dresses and skirts made from pagne, a wax-printed fabric with images of Francis, the Virgin Mary or the keys of the Vatican as a solemn sign of welcome.
Jean-Louis Mopina, 47, said he walked about 45 minutes to Kinshasa airport before the Pope’s arrival on Tuesday.
“He came like a pilgrim sent from God,” Mopina said. “His blessings will give us peace in our hearts.”
Christina Malkia in Kinshasa and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.
The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.
Nicole Winfield, Jean-yves Kamale and Christina Malkia, The Associated Press