Report: 2 Million People Attend Pope Francis Mass in D.R. Congo Airport

Pope Francis arrives at Ndolo airport to celebrate Holy Mass in Kinshasa, Congo, Wednesday
AP Photo/Jerome Delay

Local media in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) reported that “about 2 million” people convened in the capital of Kinshasa on Wednesday to attend a Mass by Pope Francis, citing event organizers.

Pope Francis departed for Africa on Tuesday and held his first large-scale events in DRC on Wednesday, offering a Mass in the morning and later meeting with the victims of gang atrocities. DRC has been marred in guerrilla warfare among rival militias for decades that has worsened in recent months as one of the deadliest, Mouvement du 23 mars (M23), strengthens its hold over the east of the country.

DRC is one of Africa’s most Catholic countries, home to about 52 million members of the faith. Pope Francis organized his visit to the country at the behest of its government. About half of Congolese identify as Catholic. The pontiff is expected to be in DRC from Tuesday through Friday and then travel to South Sudan, both countries with sizable Catholic populations enduring years of political turmoil.

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the few regions of the world where Catholicism, and Christianity generally, is rapidly growing. In South Sudan, Pope Francis is expected to preside over events alongside the leader of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Hundreds of thousands of people convened at an airfield in Kinshasa’s N’Dolo Airport in the early morning hours of Wednesday to attend the pope’s first Mass in the country during this visit, passing the time before the event by singing religious songs and praying together. The streets surrounding the airfield were also reportedly flooded with onlookers.

The local news outlet Radio Okapi reported that “about 2 million people took part in the papal Mass.” The event required an extraordinary security effort, including barricades surrounding the area and screenings of all those in attendance.

“We are here to glorify the good God and honor the successor of Saint Peter,” one peregrine attending the Mass, identified as Charly Nkumu, told Radio Okapi. “We expect a total blessing and reconciliation with Jesus Christ. It is a spiritual comfort for those who were discouraged.”

Pope Francis used his service to urge the Congolese to reject violence, particularly appealing to Christians to “lay down their arms and embrace mercy.”

“Beloved, may this day be a time of grace to welcome and live the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. May it be an opportunity for you who carry a heavy burden in your heart that you need to get rid of to start breathing,” the pope told the crowd.

Later on Wednesday, Pope Francis attended a meeting with victims of militia violence from the nation’s east, who told harrowing stories of torture, rape, and cannibalism. He urged them to commit to “never again violence, never again resentment, never again resignation.”

Multiple attendees at the event for survivors of militia warfare told stories of being forced into sex slavery. One woman recalled being abducted by “rebels,” one of whom forced her into sex slavery and left her pregnant. She escaped only to find she was pregnant with twins.

“He raped me like an animal. It was excruciating pain. I remained practically like his wife. He raped me several times a day, as he wanted, for several hours. And it lasted 19 months, 1 year and seven months,” the woman recalled. “I had, with one of my friends, the chance to escape after 19 months of suffering. From this experience, I came back pregnant. I had twins, who will never know their father.”

Another survivor accused the rebels of forcing abducted civilians to eat human flesh.

“Sometimes they mixed people’s heads into animal meat. That was our daily food. We lived naked so as not to escape,” one survivor narrated. “I am one of those who obeyed them until the day when, by grace, I escaped when they sent us to draw water from the river.”

M23, a guerrilla with close ties to the government of neighboring Rwanda, is among the most active militias in DRC and has wrested control of parts of North Kivu province away from the federal government. That militia has focused both on seizing civilian areas and attacking Congolese military assets, most notably executing a successful attack on a DRC army base in May. A United Nations report of that incident accused Rwandan forces of aiding M23, citing the sheer size of the attacking force and its orderly operations within Rwanda.

DRC is also facing insurgencies organized by other tribal groups (M23 is largely an ethnic Tutsi operation) and by the Islamic State. ISIS, largely defeated in its original “caliphate” in Iran and Syria, has regrouped significantly in Africa, organizing particularly deadly activity in DRC and Mozambique. Most recently, ISIS organized the bombing of a Pentecostal church in eastern Kasindi province on January 15, targeting a baptism ceremony and killing 14 people.

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