On the second of his 6-day visit in Africa, Pope Francis said, “We continue to be shocked to hear of the inhumane violence that you have seen with your eyes and personally experienced”, after listening to the horror stories told by survivors in a private meeting at the papal nunciature in Kinshasa on Wednesday.
“To you, dear inhabitants of the east,” Francis continued, “I want to say: I am close to you. Your tears are my tears; your pain is my pain. To every family that grieves or is displaced by the burning of villages and other war crimes, to the survivors of sexual violence and to every injured child and adult, I say: I am with you.”
It’s clear that Pope Francis hopes to bring comfort to those suffering in Africa and at the same time, hopes to stem the tide of violence. On his second day in Congo, part of a six-day trip that will also take him to South Sudan, Pope Francis focused on what he called a “forgotten genocide” in the Congo, seeking to bring a measure of peace to an overwhelmingly Christian country that has known little of it.
On Wednesday he directly appealed to the warring groups to put down their weapons, and condemned “the massacres, the rapes, the destruction and occupation of villages, and the looting of fields and cattle.”
The New York Times reported that Francis “set an urgent, angry tone on Tuesday when he referred to the decades of horrors in Congo as an overlooked ‘genocide’ perpetrated by generations of exploiters, plunderers and power-hungry groups who had preyed on the country’s roughly 100 million people, many of them members of his flock. On Wednesday he reiterated, “Never again violence, never again resentment, never again resignation!”
Pope Francis is not alone in his anger; sitting beside him in the National Palace on Tuesday, the country’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, accused the world of forgetting Congo, of plundering its natural resources and of engaging in complicity in the atrocities of the east through “inaction and silence.”
“In addition to armed groups,” he said, “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.”
There seems to be much anger in Mr. Tshisekedi’s comments as he alludes to the rising tensions with Rwanda as well as the violence in the country’s eastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri that has shaken Congo, Africa’s second-largest nation. Even the pious in the crowds cannot help but mention the violence. “Many, many terrorists,” said Edouard Lobanga, 38. “They are killing the women, killing the children, killing the girls.”
And Ladislas Kambale Kombi, 16, from Eringeti, recounted how men in fatigues hacked his father to death in front of him, putting his head in a basket, and how his brother too was murdered and armed men carried his mother away. “I can’t sleep at night,” he said, saying it was hard to understand the “almost animalistic brutality.”
Yet, despite the witnessing of atrocities and the tremendous losses they have to continue to endure, there is forgiveness in their hearts: many besides Kombi and Lobanga spoke as well, asking God to forgive their tormentors, and kneeling before Francis, who looked particularly solemn as he put his hand on their heads and blessed them.
Most of us would be overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of such anger and violence, of the atrocities committed, yet Francis is in Africa to bring it to an end. He is there seeking to encourage all possible steps toward peace, though several rounds of talks between the countries have been held with no reported progress. And are we surprised at the lack of progress?
“Loving our own country means refusing to get involved with those who foment violence,” Francis said, adding, “Dear friends, only forgiveness can open the door to the future, for it opens the door to a new justice that, without ever forgetting, puts an end to the vicious cycle of revenge.”
Love, forgiveness, peace: these are the ideals of a Christian leader spoken to his followers, but the kind of politics that drive genocide are not stemmed with soothing words and comforting empathy. Can the Pope’s visit make a difference that might translate into concrete policy changes? If not, then short of a miracle, these noble goals will remain unattainable and the violence will continue.