Violence in eastern DRC has created a severe humanitarian crisis with more than 5.5 million people displaced from their homes, the third-highest number of internally displaced people in the world.
More than 120 armed groups are fighting for control of the eastern Congo, a region rich with natural resources. In recent months, the M23 rebel group has experienced a resurgence. The U.N. reported that the M23 executed 131 people in November “as part of a campaign of murders, rapes, kidnappings, and looting against two villages.”
An affiliate of the Islamic State is also present in eastern Congo, known locally as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Two weeks before the pope’s trip, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing at a Protestant church service that killed 14 people.
After listening to six testimonies, Pope Francis addressed the victims of violence gathered in the apostolic nunciature in Kinshasa.
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“Thank you for these testimonies. We continue to be shocked to hear of the inhumane violence that you have seen with your eyes and personally experienced. We are left without words; we can only weep in silence,” the pope said.
“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; I want to bring you God’s caress. He gazes upon you with tenderness and compassion,” he said.
“While the violent treat you as pawns, our heavenly Father sees your dignity, and to each of you he says: ‘You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you’” (Is 43:4).
A previously scheduled visit to the city of Goma, a city in eastern Congo, was cut from the pope’s itinerary due to the ongoing violence after his trip to the DRC was postponed for six months in July.
Pope Francis said that his heart is in the eastern Congo after he listened to the stories.
The pope also strongly denounced the violent atrocities committed and urged the entire Congolese people to “demilitarize” their hearts.
“In the name of Jesus, who forgave those who pierced his hands and feet with nails, hanging him upon a cross, I ask everyone: Please disarm your heart,” he said.
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The pope urged people to forgive, reminding them that “the cross was itself an instrument of torture and death, the most terrible in use at the time of Jesus, yet, transformed by his love, it has become a universal means of reconciliation, a tree of life.”
“With Jesus, hope is born and constantly reborn: for those who have endured evil, and even those who perpetrated it,” Francis said.
“May Jesus, our brother, the God of reconciliation who planted the tree of life of the cross in the heart of the darkness of sin and suffering, the God of hope who believes in you, in your country and in your future, bless you and comfort you. May he pour out his peace into your hearts, your families, and upon the entire Democratic Republic of the Congo,” he said.
At the end of the emotional meeting, those in attendance committed to forgive, praying together: “Today we place the instruments of our suffering under the cross of your Son.”
Courtney Mares is a Rome Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. A graduate of Harvard University, she has reported from news bureaus on three continents and was awarded the Gardner Fellowship for her work with North Korean refugees.