Over a million worshippers turned out for a papal mass in DR Congo’s capital Wednesday, organisers said, on the second day of Pope Francis’s visit to the conflict-torn country.
Many of the faithful in Kinshasa, a deeply observant megacity of some 15 million people, began to arrive at Ndolo airport on Tuesday night to assure themselves of a spot.
Francis entered the airport grounds aboard his popemobile and was greeted by singing and dancing crowds before the mass began at around 9:30 am (0830 GMT).
Organisers said that over one million people were on the airport tarmac.
Adrien Louka, 55, told AFP he had arrived before dawn.
“As our country has many problems, it is reconciliation that we are looking for and the Pope will give a message so that the countries around us leave us in peace,” he added.
The attendees included Kinshasa residents as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, and leading opposition politicians.
Francis wished the crowd peace in Lingala, one of the DRC’s four national languages and the everyday language of Kinshasa.
The pope delivered the rest of his homily in Italian — which was translated into the DRC’s official language French — in which he urged the faithful “not to give in to divisions.”
The 86-year-old pontiff had arrived in the DRC on Tuesday, on the first leg of a six-day trip to Africa that will also include troubled South Sudan.
Huge crowds had also thronged the streets for a glimpse of the popemobile as Francis drove past.
– ‘Massively plundered’ –
A former Belgian colony the size of continental western Europe, the DRC is Africa’s most Catholic country.
About 40 percent of the population of some 100 million people follows the church of Rome, according to estimates.
Another 35 percent of the population is Protestant of various denominations, nine percent is Muslim and 10 percent Kimbanguist — a Christian movement born in the Belgian Congo.
Official Vatican statistics put the proportion of Catholics in the DRC at 49 percent of the population.
During a speech to politicians and dignitaries in Kinshasa’s presidential palace on Tuesday, Francis denounced the “economic colonialism” he suggested had wreaked lasting damage in the DRC.
“This country, massively plundered, has not benefited adequately from its immense resources,” he said, to applause.
Despite abundant mineral reserves, the DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world. About two-thirds of Congolese people live on less than $2.15 a day, according to the World Bank.
– Meeting conflict victims –
Francis is also due to meet victims of the conflict in eastern Congo in Kinshasa on Wednesday following the mega-mass.
After that, he will talk to representatives from charitable organisations.
The DRC’s east has long been plagued by dozens of armed groups. Since late 2021, M23 rebels have also captured swathes of territory in North Kivu province, coming close to its capital Goma.
The trip to DRC and South Sudan had originally been planned for July 2022, but it was postponed due to the pontiff’s knee pain that has forced him in recent months to use a wheelchair.
Security concerns were also said to play a role in delaying the trip, and a stop in Goma — a city of over a million people on the border with Rwanda — is no longer on the itinerary.
“I would have liked to go to Goma too, but with the war, you can’t go there,” Francis told reporters on the plane from Rome.
The Argentine pontiff, in his speech in Kinshasa on Tuesday, urged the need to address the conflict and said he supported regional peace efforts.
Francis also underlined the need for investment in education, and free-and-fair elections, among other issues.
On Friday, the pope travels to South Sudan’s capital Juba.
This visit is Francis’s 40th foreign trip since being elected in 2013.