Pope Francis next week heads to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, two countries grappling with conflict and profound poverty, in what will be his third visit to sub-Saharan Africa since he became pope in 2013.
For the South Sudan leg, the leader of the world’s nearly 1.4 billion Roman Catholics will be joined by his Anglican counterpart, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and by the Church of Scotland Moderator -- an unprecedented joint foreign trip by the three religious leaders.
Here are key facts about the pope’s trip.
A rescheduled, modified visit
Pope Francis was scheduled to visit the two countries in July 2022 but had to cancel because of a persistent knee ailment.
The original itinerary included a stop in the city of Goma, in a region of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo that is plagued by fighting between Congolese troops and the M23 rebel group. That stop was eliminated from the program for the coming trip because of a flare-up in unrest there.
Main events in Congo
The pope will fly from Rome to Kinshasa on Tuesday, Jan. 31. After a welcome ceremony he will meet Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, then with Congolese authorities, civil society representatives and the diplomatic corps.
On Wednesday he will celebrate Mass at Kinshasa’s Ndolo Airport, then meet with victims of the violence in eastern Congo, then with representatives of some charities.
On Thursday he will meet with young people and catechists at Kinshasa’s Martyrs’ Stadium.
On Friday he will meet Congolese bishops. Then, after a farewell ceremony at Kinshasa’s international airport, he will fly to the South Sudanese capital Juba.
Backdrop to Congo visit
Congo is home to 45 million Roman Catholics, the faith’s largest community in Africa, according to the Vatican. The Church runs about 40 percent of the country’s health facilities and about 6 million children are taught in Catholic schools.
The last pontiff to visit was Pope John Paul II in 1985.
Francis’ envoy to the country said the pope’s visit would remind the world not to ignore decades-long conflicts that have ravaged the mineral-rich nation, wrecking millions of lives.
The visit comes after the killing in February 2021 of Italian ambassador Luca Attanasio, his bodyguard and their driver during a botched kidnapping on a road in eastern Congo as they were heading to visit a UN humanitarian project.
Attanasio became a national hero in Italy and Francis met his widow last year.
Main events in South Sudan
The pope, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Church of Scotland Moderator Iain Greenshields land in Juba on Friday, Feb. 3. After a welcome ceremony, they will meet President Salva Kiir, then South Sudanese authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps.
On Saturday the three religious leaders will meet bishops and other clergy at the Cathedral of Saint Therese, and later meet internally displaced persons before holding an ecumenical prayer at the mausoleum to John Garang, a hero of South Sudan’s independence struggle who died in a helicopter crash in 2005.
On Sunday, the pope will celebrate Mass at the Garang mausoleum. After a farewell ceremony at the international airport in Juba, he will fly back to Rome along with Welby and Greenshields. They are expected to join the pope in his traditional airborne news conference on the return flight to the Italian capital.
Backdrop to South Sudan visit
South Sudan broke away from Sudan to become independent in 2011 after decades of conflict, but civil war erupted in 2013. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, violence and hunger still plague the country.
Francis has wanted to visit the predominantly Christian country for years but each time planning for a trip began it had to be postponed because of instability on the ground.
In one of the most remarkable gestures of his papacy, Francis knelt to kiss the feet of South Sudan’s previously warring leaders during a meeting at the Vatican in April 2019, urging them not to return to civil war.
An unprecedented “pilgrimage of peace”
The joint ecumenical visit by the leaders of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Reformed Christian traditions, which they have described as a “pilgrimage of peace”, is the first of its kind.
“We pray that the symbolism of our joint visit will show that reconciliation and forgiveness are possible - and that relationships can be transformed,” Welby said in a statement when the visit was first announced.
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