ROME (RNS) — Embarking next week on his 40th apostolic visit abroad, Pope Francis hopes to bring “a word of peace” and consolation during his long-awaited visit to Congo and South Sudan, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said.
However, a recent surge in violence in Congo has raised concerns about the pope’s safety when he touches down in the capital city of Kinshasa on Tuesday (Jan. 31).
Upon arrival, Francis will meet with civil and religious authorities in the country. He will remain in Kinshasa until Feb. 3, then will visit Juba, South Sudan, before returning to Rome Feb. 5.
During the second leg of his trip, the pope will be accompanied by Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, leader of the Anglican Communion, and the Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Despite concerns for the pope’s safety on the trip, Bruni told journalists during a news briefing Tuesday that “there was no specific threat” to the 86-year-old pontiff.
“There is a great effort by the local authorities to ensure security,” he said.
The visit was originally scheduled for July 2021 but was postponed after doctors recommended the pontiff reschedule “in order not to jeopardize the results” of therapy he was undergoing for his persistent knee pain, the Vatican said.
The Vatican released an updated schedule of his visit in December, with the most notable change being the removal of a Mass in the eastern Congolese city of Goma, which has been at the center of a conflict between the Congolese military and the M23 (March 23 Movement) rebels. Instead, he will meet with victims from Goma at the apostolic nunciature in Kinshasa.
In an interview published Jan. 14 with Mundo Negro, a magazine run by the Comboni missionaries, Francis said it was impossible to visit Goma “due to the fighting.”
“It’s not that I’m not going because I’m afraid, but with this (volatile) atmosphere and seeing what is happening,” it was important to minimize the risk of attacks on those attending, he said.
According to a report Tuesday by the U.N. refugee agency, an estimated 2.1 million men, women and children have been internally displaced due to the conflict in Congo.
Most recently, the so-called Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the Jan. 15 bombing of a Pentecostal church in the eastern city of Kasindi that left 17 dead and dozens wounded.
In a Jan. 17 telegram to the Rev. André Bokundoa-Bo-Likabe, president of the Church of Christ in Congo, the pope said he was “saddened to learn of the attack on a Pentecostal church in Kasindi, which caused the death of innocent people,” and he expressed his “compassion and closeness” to the victims.
During an online meeting with journalists on Wednesday, Congolese Bishop Félicien Mwanama Galumbulula of Luiza said the violent attacks in the east have “worried us because it is the second time (this year) that a sacred place was attacked by bombing.”
“The pope has spoken about a world war fought in pieces,” Galumbulula said. “In Congo, at least in the east, people are used to this violence.”
Nevertheless, the bishop said he hopes that the pope’s visit will “have an impact in the hearts, the culture and the society of Congo.”