KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Pope Francis demanded Tuesday that foreign powers stop plundering Africa’s natural resources for the “poison of their own greed” as he arrived in Congo to a raucous welcome by Congolese grateful he was focusing the world’s attention on their forgotten plight.
Tens of thousands of people lined the main road into the capital, Kinshasa, to welcome Francis after he landed at the airport, some standing three or four deep, with children in school uniforms taking 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 agent in his 30s, as he waited for Francis’ arrival in a scene reminiscent of some of Francis’ earlier trips to similarly heavily Catholic countries.
Francis plunged headfirst into his agenda upon arrival, denouncing the centuries-long exploitation of Africa by colonial powers, today’s multinational extraction industries and the neighboring countries interfering in Congo’s affairs that has led to a surge in fighting in the east.
“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa!” Francis said 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.
The six-day trip, which also includes a stop in South Sudan, was originally scheduled for July, but was postponed because of Francis’ knee problems, which were still so serious on Tuesday that he couldn’t stand to greet journalists in the plane heading to Kinshasa and forced him to use a wheelchair on the ground.
It 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 militants linked to the Islamic State group.
The fighting has displaced some 5.7 million people, a fifth of them last year alone, according to the World Food Program.
Instead of travelling there, 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 jointly committing to forgive their assailants.
Sylvie Mvita, a student in economics in Kinshasa, said the pope’s arrival would focus the world’s attention and television cameras on Congo and the fighting in the east to show how its suffering has been forgotten by the rest of the world.
“This will allow the world to discover the atrocities of which our brothers in the east of the country are victims. And maybe for once, the little humanity that remains in some people will cause an awakening and the international community will not only be interested in what is happening in Ukraine but also in what is happening in this country,” she said.
President Felix Tshisekedi voiced a similar line in his speech to the pope, accusing the international community of forgetting about Congo and of its complicit “inaction and silence” about the atrocities occurring in the east.
“In addition to armed groups, foreign powers eager for the minerals in our subsoil commit cruel atrocities with the direct and cowardly support of our neighbor Rwanda, making security the first and greatest challenge for the government,” he said.
Rwanda has been accused of ― and has repeatedly denied ― backing the M23 rebels operating in Congo.
Francis’ tough words at the start set the tone for the trip, in which the pontiff is aiming to bring a message of peace, a warning to the international community to not look the other way and a recognition that Africa is the future of the Catholic Church.
The continent is one of the only places on Earth where the Catholic flock is growing, both in terms of practicing faithful and fresh vocations to the priesthood and religious life.