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Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 31, 2023
Pope Francis delivers his speech as he meets authorities, civil society and diplomatic corps in the garden of the "Palais de la Nation" in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Pope Francis may be in a wheelchair, but he came out hitting as hard as any pope has ever done in his first speech on his arrival in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He drew applause when, departing from his prepared text, he denounced “the forgotten genocide” that has taken place in this country over the past 30 years, which has been largely ignored by the international community.

He called on other countries, both near and far, and multinational corporations to stop the economic exploitation of this country and of the continent and said to enthusiastic applause: “Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.”

He said the country must be allowed to be the “protagonist of its own destiny,” as should the rest of Africa.

Pope Francis may be in a wheelchair, but he came out hitting as hard as any pope has ever done in his first speech on his arrival in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The pope delivered his keynote address to an audience of 1,000 people representing the civil authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps in the presidential palace, the Gardens of the Palais de la Nation. On the hot and humid afternoon of Jan. 31, the temperature registered at 88 degrees Fahrenheit.

Earlier, Francis was given an enthusiastic welcome from tens of thousands of Congolese—very many of them young people—as he drove from the airport to the presidential palace in the heart of Kinshasa, a metro region of 15 million people.

His welcome here reminded me of what I had seen in Bogota and Manila when he visited those cities. Congolese residents lined the streets and stood on rooftops; they cheered, danced and waved flags and banners as they welcomed this “pilgrim of peace” whom they hope can somehow help bring about the “miracle of peace” in their conflict-torn and exploited homeland.

Francis called for everyone to be converted from violence to peace, from corruption to honest governance, from tribalism to being one family of brothers and sisters.

Pope Francis: “Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.”

He addressed the audience at an open-air gathering as the sun went down over this the third-largest country in Africa. Earlier, he had been given a state welcome by President Felix Tshisekedi, with whom he had a private conversation.

In his welcome speech, Mr. Tshisekedi told Francis that the Congolese people were overjoyed and celebrating his arrival among them. He said that though the state was a lay state, the people were profoundly religious. He said he wished to bring three things to the pope’s attention. First, the terrible violence and killing that has caused the deaths of 10 million people in the east of the country and attempts to break up the country, to damage its “territorial integrity.” He blamed Rwanda principally for this because, he alleged, the leaders of this neighboring state support armed terrorists in the D.R.C.’s east. He added that women are frequently the targets of sexual violence there as well.

He spoke next about the need to overcome the widespread poverty in this mineral-rich country and to strengthen the national health care and education systems, and he thanked the Catholic Church for its invaluable contribution to those systems. Finally, he emphasized the need to protect the environment. The D.R.C. hosts an equatorial forest like the Amazon region’s rain forests and is said to be one of the two lungs of the world. He thanked Francis for honoring them with his visit and his continued attention to their plight.

“This diaphragm of Africa,” he said, has been “struck by violence like a blow to the stomach” that has left it “gasping for breath.”

Responding to the president, Pope Francis noted that the D.R.C. is “a beautiful, vast and luxuriant land” with the equatorial forest to the north; plateaus and wooded savannas in the center and south; hills, mountains, volcanoes and lakes in the east; and great bodies of water and the Congo River to the west. “Yet,” he said, “if the geography of this verdant lung is so rich and variegated, its history has not been comparably blessed.”

The country has been “torn by war” in past decades that left millions of people dead, Francis said, and adding to his prepared text, he denounced “the forgotten genocide” that the world has largely ignored. Moreover, he said, the country “continues to witness within its confines conflicts and forced migrations and to suffer from terrible forms of exploitation, unworthy of humanity and of creation.”

“This diaphragm of Africa,” he said, has been “struck by violence like a blow to the stomach” that has left it “gasping for breath.”

He told the Congolese he had come “in the name of Jesus, as a pilgrim of reconciliation and peace” to stand with them, together with the worldwide Catholic Church, “as you fight to preserve your dignity and your territorial integrity against deplorable attempts to fragment your country.”

“Paradoxically, the riches of its land have made it ‘foreign’ to its very inhabitants. The poison of greed has smeared its diamonds with blood.”

Pope Francis said, “It is a tragedy that these lands, and more generally the whole African continent, continue to endure various forms of exploitation.

“Political exploitation gave way to an ‘economic colonialism’ that was equally enslaving,” he said. “As a result, this country, massively plundered, has not benefited adequately from its immense resources.

“Paradoxically, the riches of its land have made it ‘foreign’ to its very inhabitants. The poison of greed has smeared its diamonds with blood.”

Pope Francis denounced this as “a tragedy to which the economically more advanced world often closes its eyes, ears and mouth.”

In his speech, Pope Francis advocated that instead of exploitation there should be a place for “a diplomacy that is authentically human, for a diplomacy where peoples are concerned for other peoples, for a diplomacy centered not on control over land and resources, expansionism and increased profits, but rather on providing opportunities for people to grow and develop.” He lamented that “in the case of this people, one has the impression that the international community has practically resigned itself to the violence devouring it.”

“We cannot grow accustomed to the bloodshed that has marked this country for decades, causing millions of deaths that remain mostly unknown elsewhere,” the pope said.

“We cannot grow accustomed to the bloodshed that has marked this country for decades, causing millions of deaths that remain mostly unknown elsewhere,” the pope said. “What is happening here needs to be known.”

He expressed his strong support for “the current peace processes” and emphasized that it needs “to be sustained by concrete deeds.” He thanked “the countries and the organizations that are providing substantial aid” to the local population and to projects of development that are “helping to combat poverty and disease, supporting the rule of law and promoting respect for human rights.”

He called for an end to “tribalism and hostility” in the country where there are 200 ethnic groups and an end to “the partisan spirit that stubbornly promotes one’s own ethnic group or particular interests.” This, he said, only nurtures “spirals of hatred and violence” and prevents people from working together for the common good.

He reminded this predominantly Christian people that God, “the heavenly Father wants us to accept one another as brothers and sisters of a single family, and to work together for a future with others, not against others.” He said the religions in the country are called “to contribute to this” and to renounce “every form of aggression, proselytism and constraint.”

In another important part of his speech, Francis called for good governance and the elimination of corruption. Again, referring the image of the diamond, he recalled that “the diamond, in its transparency, marvelously reflects the light it receives.”

The pope lamented that “many children receive no schooling” and instead “are exploited” and “too many of them die, subjected to servile labor in the mines.”

“Those holding civil and governmental offices are called to operate with crystalline clarity, experiencing the charge they have received as a means of serving society,” he said. He told them “Power is meaningful only if it becomes a form of service” and emphasized the importance that “civic responsibilities be carried out in this spirit, avoiding authoritarianism, the quest for a quick profit and the greed that the apostle Paul defines as ‘the root of all evils.’”

Elections are due to take place in the D.R.C. in 2024, and today Francis called for “free, transparent and credible elections” and advocated “greater participation in the peace processes be allowed to women, to young people and to socially marginalized groups,” so that the common good and people’s security be pursued, rather than personal or group interests.

He also called for a strengthening of “the presence of the state in every part of the territory,” and he appealed to the authorities to care for the many refugees and displaced persons (more than five million). He appealed to those in positions of power not to allow themselves “to be manipulated, much less bought, by those who would foment violence in the country and exploit it in order to make shameful business deals.” He encouraged them to “never tire of promoting law and equity everywhere, combating impunity and the manipulation of laws and information.”

Pope Francis, speaking in Italian with instant translation into French, compared the country to “a diamond of creation,” and he sought to encourage the Congolese people by telling them that “all of you” are “infinitely more precious” than any treasure found in this land.

“Children, young girls and all young people represent hope for the future: Let us not allow that hope to be stifled but instead cultivate it with passion.”

Referring to the young people, Francis said, “the most precious diamonds of this land are the sons and daughters of this nation”—one-third of the population are under the age of 15—and they need to have access to education so that they can “shine brightly.” He urged the government “to invest in education.”

He lamented that “many children receive no schooling” and instead “are exploited” and “too many of them die, subjected to servile labor in the mines.” He said, “No effort should be spared to denounce and finally end the scourge of child labor.”

So “many girls are marginalized, and their dignity violated,” he said, adding that “children, young girls and all young people represent hope for the future: Let us not allow that hope to be stifled but instead cultivate it with passion.”

Francis recalled that the country “is host to one of the great green lungs of the world, which must be preserved.” He called for “fruitful cooperation” from other countries and the international community “without imposing external models that are more useful to those who help than to [the people who] are helped.”

He concluded, “I stand with you, and I accompany with my prayers and closeness every effort made to achieve a peaceful, harmonious, and prosperous future for this great country. God bless the entire Congolese nation!”

They applauded warmly when he finished speaking, and many women ululated in the traditional African way.

Tomorrow, Pope Francis will preside at an open-air Mass that is expected to attract a great crowd.

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