Pope Francis will visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan next week, delivering a message of peace and reconciliation to two sub-Saharan African nations plagued by conflict.
The 86-year-old pontiff is flying to the Congolese capital Kinshasa on Tuesday before heading Friday to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, where he will be joined by the leaders of the Anglican Church and the Church of Scotland.
The six-day trip was originally planned for July 2022 but was postponed after Francis suffered problems with his knee, which have recently forced him to use a wheelchair.
There were also concerns about his planned visit to the east of DR Congo, where scores of armed groups roam including M23, which recently came within several miles of the commercial hub of Goma.
The new itinerary no longer includes a trip to Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province, though the pope will meet victims of the conflict while in Kinshasa.
It will be the Argentine pontiff's 40th trip overseas since being elected head of the Catholic Church in 2013, and his fifth visit to Africa.
Francis is due to speak publicly 12 times and hold meetings with local officials, clerics and charities, addressing issues including education, climate change and deforestation, and social and health problems.
But his priority will be efforts to restore peace in two impoverished countries ravaged by fighting, from the three decades of conflict in DR Congo's east to the violence that persists in South Sudan after a brutal civil war.
More than a million people are expected at an open-air mass at Kinshasa airport on Wednesday, and market stalls are already doing brisk business in papal souvenirs including T-shirts and wax prints decorated with Francis' image.
DR Congo is a traditionally Catholic nation of around 100 million people in central Africa, plagued by poverty despite its vast mineral wealth.
"The pope's voice will be hugely encouraging for the country but will also be a strong spur to the political classes to resolve the country's problems," Mauro Garofalo, head of international relations at the Rome-based Sant'Egidio community, told AFP.
Security in Kinshasa will be a concern, mainly because of the threat of militias from the east, but Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told journalists Tuesday that there was "no specific threat" against the pontiff.
Among the armed groups operating in DR Congo's east are the Allied Democratic Forces, which the Islamic State group claims as an affiliate and which bombed a Pentecostal church on January 15, killing 14 people.
Justin-Marie Bayala, a Catholic teacher in Kinshasa, told AFP this week: "We dare to believe that he will bring us lasting peace."
Despite its natural wealth, "Congo also embodies social injustice, the scandal of underdevelopment and poverty", said Samuel Pommeret from the nongovernmental organisation CCFD-Terre Solidaire.
Francis, the first pope to visit DR Congo since 1985, "could also deliver a message for the economic actors who benefit from these riches", Pommeret said.
Christian leaders unite
In South Sudan, the world's newest nation after independence from Sudan in 2011, the pope will deliver another appeal for peace, this time alongside Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields.
The leaders of the Catholic, Anglican and Scottish churches had gathered at the Vatican in 2019 with South Sudan rivals Riek Machar and Salva Kiir to encourage them to salvage a stalled peace deal signed the year before.
At that event, Francis stunned the world by kissing the feet of the two men, both accused of responsibility for war crimes.
"This is a very important element in the South Sudanese crisis -- the joint work of the Christian churches and denominations can represent an antidote to the ethnicism and political rivalry," Garofalo said.
After independence, South Sudan suffered a brutal five-year civil war between forces loyal to President Kiir or Machar, his deputy, that left nearly 400,000 people dead.
Despite the 2018 peace deal, sporadic bursts of violence between government and opposition forces continue, while conflict between rival ethnic groups in lawless parts of the country exacts a devastating toll on civilians.