POPE Francis on Wednesday urged people in Democratic Republic of Congo to grant each other a “great amnesty of the heart” and called on Christians engaged in battle to lay down their arms.
Decades of armed conflicts in DR Congo have led to the killing of millions.
On the first full day of his trip – his third to sub-Saharan Africa as pope – Francis presided at an open air Mass for a crowd local authorities estimated at more than a million people on the grounds of a secondary airport in the capital Kinshasa.
The Congolese have given the pope one of the most vibrant welcomes of his foreign trips. On his arrival on Tuesday, tens of thousands lined his motorcade route.
At the sprawling site on Wednesday his popemobile moved slowly on the runway, with hundreds of thousands of people singing and dancing on either side before he began a Mass from a large altar platform.
Many women wore dresses with his picture emblazoned on them, as is customary in many African countries to honour dignitaries, while children climbed on a disused plane for a better view.
The country’s people, the pope said in his homily, were suffering from “wounds that ache, continually infected by hatred and violence, while the medicine of justice and the balm of hope never seem to arrive”.
Armed conflict has left 5.7 million people internally displaced and 26 million facing severe hunger, according to the United Nations.
Francis said God wanted the people to find “the courage to grant others a great amnesty of the heart”.
“What great good it does us to cleanse our hearts of anger and remorse, of every trace of resentment and hostility!” he said.
Eastern Congo has been plagued by violence connected to the long and complex fallout from the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda. Congo accuses Rwanda of backing the M23 rebel group fighting government troops in the east. Rwanda denies this.
“We left because of the war,” said Lea Serundoru, 21, a high school student who fled fighting in Rutshuru territory near the border with Uganda, an area that was hit by fighting between the army and M23 last year.
A papal stop in the eastern city of Goma, foreseen when the trip was originally scheduled for last July, was later scrapped because of the flare-up in violence last year.
Serundoru said she hoped “the armed groups would listen to the pope and put down their arms because he is a strong and powerful man, and we have faith that everything will return to normal”.
About half of Congo’s population of 90 million are Roman Catholics and in his homily, Francis addressed them as well as other Christians involved in the fighting.
“May it be a good time for all of you in this country who call yourselves Christians but engage in violence. The Lord is telling you: ‘Lay down your arms, embrace mercy,’” the pope said.
Thousands of people had spent the night praying at the airport in the build-up to the service.
“The country is not well. There are divisions, hatred, lots of massacres, especially in the east. After the pope’s homily, I hope peace will return,” said Patrick Mukaba, a 35-year-old lawyer, who was there with his wife Laetitia.
Congo has some of the world’s richest deposits of diamonds, gold and other precious metals, but its wealth has stoked conflict between government troops, militias and foreign invaders, as well as driving exploitation and abuses.
The pope will meet victims of violence from the eastern part of Congo later on Wednesday.
Thursday will be his last full day in Congo, before he departs on Friday for neighbouring South Sudan, another country grappling with conflict and hunger, on Friday morning.
For the South Sudan visit, he will be with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church of Scotland Moderator, an unprecedented joint foreign trip by the three Christian leaders. (NAN)