Pope Francis has demanded that foreign powers stop plundering Africa’s natural resources for the “poison of their own greed” after he landed in the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of a trip to two African nations.
The 86-year-old Francis is the first pontiff to visit DR Congo since Pope John Paul II did so in 1985, when the country was still known as Zaire.
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“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa!” Francis said on Tuesday to applause in his opening speech to Congolese government authorities and the diplomatic corps in the garden of Kinshasa’s national palace.
Calling Congo’s vast mineral and natural wealth a “diamond of creation”, Francis demanded that foreign interests stop carving up the country for their own interests and acknowledge their role in the economic “enslavement” of the Congolese people.
“Stop choking Africa. It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” said history’s first Latin American pope, who has long railed at how wealthy countries have exploited the resources of poorer ones for their own profit.
Francis pointed the finger at the role colonial powers such as Belgium played in the exploitation of Congo until the country, which is 80 times the size of Belgium, gained its independence in 1960. He also said neighbouring countries are playing a similar role today.
The 86-year-old didn’t identify Belgium or any neighbouring country by name, but he spared no word of condemnation, saying there was a “forgotten genocide” under way.
“The poison of greed has smeared its diamonds with blood,” Francis said.
“May the world acknowledge the catastrophic things that were done over the centuries to the detriment of the local peoples, and not forget this country and this continent.”
Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from Kinshasa, said hundreds if not thousands of people on the roads followed the pope’s motorcade on motorbikes to the presidential palace from the airport.
“The roads were lined up with church groups and schoolchildren from the many Catholic-run church schools run over here in Congo,” he added.
“The Catholic church runs about 60 percent of health and education services here … it’s what makes the Catholic Church such a significant institution here [in Congo],” Webb added.
About half of Congo’s population of 90 million are Roman Catholics.
The six-day trip, which also includes a stop in South Sudan, was originally scheduled for July 2022, but was postponed because of Francis’s knee problems, which were still so serious on Tuesday that he could not stand to greet journalists in the plane heading to Kinshasa and was forced to use a wheelchair on the ground.
Fighting in DRC
Francis was also supposed to have included a stop in Goma, in eastern Congo, but the surrounding North Kivu region has been plagued by intense fighting between government troops and the M23 rebel group, as well as attacks by fighters linked to the ISIL (ISIS) armed group.
The fighting has displaced some 5.7 million people, a fifth of them last year alone, according to the World Food Programme.
Congo accuses Rwanda of backing the M23 rebel group fighting government troops in the east. Rwanda denies this.
“As well as armed militias, foreign powers hungry for the minerals in our soil commit, with the direct and cowardly support of our neighbour Rwanda, cruel atrocities,” said Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, speaking just before the pope on the same stage.
The pope said the Congolese people were fighting to preserve their territorial integrity “against deplorable attempts to fragment the country”. The pope did not name Rwanda in his address or take sides in the dispute.
Instead of travelling to Goma, Francis will meet with a delegation of people from the east who will travel to Kinshasa for a private encounter at the Vatican embassy on Wednesday.
The plan calls for them to participate in a ceremony in which they jointly commit to forgiving their assailants.