On Tuesday 31st January Pope Francis flies to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and on 3rd February he travels on to South Sudan in an apostolic journey of great significance.
The conflict in the eastern part of DRC has seen 6 million lives lost since 1996 making it one of the deadliest conflicts in the history of mankind. Meanwhile the civil war in South Sudan continues to rage 10 years on, having claimed over a million lives. The visit to South Sudan is an unprecedented show of Christian unity (which is appropriate following on from the week of Christian Unity which ended on 25th January), as the Holy Father will be joined by both Justin Welby the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Iain Greenshields the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, for what has been described as a “pilgrimage of peace”. Their visit will culminate in an Ecumenical Prayer meeting. DRC and South Sudan are united by crippling poverty and seemingly unending conflict, but these three Christian churches are united by a thirst for peace.
DRC is home to 45 million Catholics, the largest population of the faithful in the whole of Africa, who have not received a papal visit since St John Paul II in 1985. The Church plays a significant role in the country with nuns responsible for around 40% of the DRC’s health facilities, whilst 6 million children are taught in Catholic schools. The Church there is also engaged in election observation missions, one of the few reliable guarantors of free and open elections in this allegedly democratic republic.
DRC’s poverty is a tragic irony as the country is estimated to have $24 trillion of untapped mineral resources. But these ‘conflict minerals’ are being used to fund warring factions, who have spilled over from neighbouring Rwanda.
“Love… impels us towards universal communion,” writes Pope Francis in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti (§95), and yet the first casualty of war, he states, is “the human family’s innate vocation to fraternity” (FT §26). One in four human beings lives in a conflict zone. That is a staggering statistic and yet for so many people war is simply part and parcel of their everyday lives. This is not God’s plan, which instead is “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10).
We are rapidly approaching the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine; disbelief has given way to fatigue. The plight of Ukraine still receives some coverage in the media, but nothing like that it received at the beginning of the conflict. Of course, that changed this past week with the announcement that tanks are to be supplied to Ukraine from the UK, Germany and USA. There is potential for escalation of this conflict with impacts that could be felt far beyond the Ukraine. In common with the conflicts in DRC and South Sudan there is an understandable resistance on either side to be seen to “give in”, but there can be no peace without forgiveness and reconciliation. The longer conflict continues, and the greater the death toll and the devastation, the more difficult it is to forgive and to rediscover that innate vocation to fraternity. To paraphrase the words of Ettore Balestrero, the Vatican’s envoy to Kinshasa, the healing wounds continue to bleed. Without genuine reconciliation those wounds simply cannot heal.
On Saturday 4th February let us join our prayers with those of Pope Francis and of the Churches of England and Scotland for peace in our time for every country ravaged by war, for forgiveness and reconciliation.