Pope Francis landed in the Democratic Republic of Congo Tuesday, hailing his “beautiful trip” to Africa as he comes bearing a message of peace to the conflict-torn nation and its troubled neighbour South Sudan.
Large crowds of well-wishers gathered at Kinshasa’s Ndjili airport, about 25 kilometres (15 miles) from the centre, to greet the Argentine pontiff, whose plane touched down at 2:35 pm local time (1:45 pm GMT).
It is the first time since 1985 that a pope has visited the Democratic Republic of Congo, a desperately poor country of about 100 million people, 40 percent of whom are Catholic.
The six-day trip to DRC and South Sudan had been planned for July 2022, but postponed due to the pontiff’s knee pain that has forced him in recent months to use a wheelchair.
Security concerns were also said to play a role in delaying the trip, and a stop in Goma in DR Congo’s east, where dozens of armed groups operate, is no longer on the itinerary.
Following a welcome ceremony at the Kinshasa airport, Francis will be received at the presidential palace by President Felix Tshisekedi.
The pontiff will then make his first of a dozen speeches during the trip, addressing authorities, the diplomatic corps, and representatives of civil society.
On Friday, Francis will travel to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, also one of the world’s poorest countries, that has lurched from one crisis to another since gaining independence in 2011.
It suffered a brutal five-year civil war, while continued conflict between rival ethnic groups exacts a terrible toll on civilians.
The pope will be joined in Juba by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the leader of the Church of Scotland, on what he has called “an ecumenical pilgrimage of peace”.