By JUSTIN KABUMBA and SAM MEDNICK
GOMA, Congo (AP) — It took years for Marie Louise Wambale to re-establish her life after fighting between the M23 rebel group and the Congolese army forced her to flee with almost nothing more than a decade ago.
Like most Catholics in eastern Congo, she hoped that Pope Francis could bring a message of hope at a time when the M23 rebels are posing their greatest threat here since 2012.
“Many people were disappointed because they wanted to welcome him to our home, for him to come here and live our suffering, to feel it with his own eyes,” she said. “We wanted him to live it because there are many people who have fled the war. There are pregnant mothers who gave birth in the camps in very bad conditions — many women and children are suffering.”
Now Wambale has been tasked with taking this message to Kinshasa, where she will be among the Congolese faithful chosen to personally meet Francis.
His long-awaited visit to Congo and South Sudan this week comes after he postponed an earlier trip late last year that originally had included a stop in the volatile east. But insecurity has soared in the months since, so the pope is limiting his visit to Congo’s capital, Kinshasa.
“It is clear to anybody that there is a danger. But the danger, I would say, even more than for the Pope is for the people,” the Vatican’s ambassador to Congo, Archbishop Ettore Balestrero told the Associated Press.
The security requirements to protect people for a papal Mass would be hard under ordinary circumstances, but even more delicate in an already dangerous area like the east, he said.
An estimated 2 million Congolese are expected at the Mass at Kinshasa airport on February 1, which he said would make it the largest crowd event in Congo’s recent history.
Fighting in eastern Congo, which has more than 120 armed groups, has simmered for years but spiked in late 2021 with the resurgence of the M23 group, which had been largely dormant for nearly a decade. The rebels have captured swaths of land and are accused by the United Nations and rights groups of committing atrocities against civilians.
Eastern Congo is also increasingly grappling with violence linked to Islamic militants. Earlier this month, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for killing at least 14 people and injuring dozens with a bomb that exploded inside a church while people were praying.
In South Sudan, where Francis will travel after Congo, civil war has prevented a papal visit since 2017. Despite a fragile peace agreement signed more than four years ago to end half a decade of fighting that killed nearly 400,000 people, the security situation is deteriorating.
While large scale clashes have subsided, in recent months nearly 40,000 people have been displaced by violence between politically-backed youth militias in Upper Nile and Jonglei states.
Much of the peace agreement hasn’t been implemented and there is infighting among a splintered opposition. Elections are now slated for 2024 after a two-year delay, but preparations have been extremely slow.
Locals say they’re hoping the Pope’s visit will push the government to focus on peace.
“Let the political leadership of South Sudan take the visit of Pope Francis and the other faith-based leaders as an opportunity to change political attitudes towards making peace and stability prevail,” said Edmund Yakani, executive director of the nonprofit Community Empowerment for Progress Organization.
“It will be a shame after the Pope Francis visit for the deadly and inhuman violence to continue,” he added.
Throughout decades of war, the church has played a pivotal role in mitigating conflict in both countries.
In South Sudan, the church was key in brokering a peace deal to end the first civil war in 1972. It also created the people-to-people peace process in the 1990s, which reconciled warring southern communities and leaders during the second civil war, said John Ashworth, a retired missionary who has worked with the church in Sudan and South Sudan for 40 years.
The church also helped push the 2011 referendum, which led to the country’s independence from the north. And when civil war erupted in 2013, church leaders risked their lives protecting people, he said.
In Congo, the Catholic church mediated rising tensions in 2016 after the government postponed elections, creating an agreement which led to the 2018 vote, said Katharina R. Vogeli, founder of CapImpact, a peace-building organization working in the Great Lakes region.
Religious advisers say people in countries with enormously entrenched problems need to be lifted out of a generational sense of dread and anxiety.
“It’s the message of eternal hope that transcends, which is what people need,” said Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen, a peace-building expert and former adviser to the South Sudan Council of Churches.
“The church has enormous power,” he said. “Though they may not necessarily have political power, they have moral authority.”
Mednick reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Christina Malkia in Kinshasa, Congo, Deng Machol in Juba South Sudan and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed.
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