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Conflict survivors to meet Pope Francis on his DR Congo trip

It took years for Marie Louise Wambale to re-establish her life after fighting between M23 rebels and the army of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the country’s eastern region forced her to flee with almost nothing about a decade ago.

Like most Catholics in the eastern DRC, she hoped that Pope Francis could bring a message of hope at a time when the 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 the capital, Kinshasa, where she will be among the Congolese faithful chosen to meet Pope Francis.

His long-awaited visit to DRC and South Sudan this week comes after he postponed an earlier trip late last year that had originally included a stop in the volatile east for health reasons. Insecurity, though, has soared in the months since so the pope is limiting his visit to 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 DRC, Archbishop Ettore Balestrero told The Associated Press news agency.

The security requirements to protect people at 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 two million Congolese are expected at the mass at Kinshasa airport on February 1, which he said would make it the largest crowd event in DRC’s recent history.

Fighting in the eastern DRC, which involves more than 120 armed groups, has simmered for years but spiked in late 2021 with the resurgence of the M23, 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.

The violence, which has displaced approximately half a million people, has triggered a diplomatic spat with neighbouring Rwanda. Kinshasa has accused Kigali of backing the M23, an allegation also made by UN experts and the European Union.

Rwanda denies backing the group, which continues to resist a concerted pushback from the Congolese military and a regional peacekeeping force.

The region is also increasingly grappling with violence linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda affiliates. Earlier this month, ISIL claimed responsibility for a bomb explosion at a church, which killed at least 14 people and injured dozens while they were praying.

In DRC, 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 organisation 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.”

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